OCEANSIDE, Calif. -- Two of three San Diego County residents killed in a fiery Christmas night crash on southbound Interstate 5 in Oceanside were publicly identified Tuesday.
The Medical Examiner's office identified two victims as Jose and Ruth Cortez, both 80 years old, of San Diego.
A son of the victims said on social media Tuesday that the couple was returning home from a family Christmas gathering in Glendale when the crash happened.
"Though this is a great loss for my family and the sadness is at times unbearable we find comfort that they were together and had one last Xmas with their family," Allan Cortez wrote in a Facebook post.
The name of the third victim was not immediately released, but California Highway Patrol officers identified him as an Escondido man.
The Escondido man was behind the wheel of a 1996 Nissan sedan about 5:20 p.m. Monday, headed southbound on I-5 toward the eastbound state Route 76 offramp, when he suddenly veered left attempting to get back on the I-5, CHP Officer Mark Latulippe said. Witnesses said the car slammed into a barrier near the transition ramp, coming to a stop on the right shoulder of the freeway.
But for reasons still under investigation Tuesday, the crashed car moved from the right shoulder all the way into the far left lane of the freeway, where it stopped, Latulippe said. That's where a 2016 Nissan Sentra with three occupants crashed into the older Nissan, sparking a fire that engulfed the older car.
The driver and lone occupant of the older Nissan sedan that first crashed into the barrier was killed when his car was struck by the Nissan Sentra, Latulippe said. A man and woman who were passengers in the Sentra also died, while the 65-year-old woman driving that car was taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla with moderate injuries.
A 38-year-old Huntington Park man in a 2018 Toyota Rav4 was unable to avoid the disabled cars as he approached the scene and sideswiped one of the vehicles, but no injuries were believed to have been caused by that crash, Latulippe said.
After shutting down three lanes initially, CHP officers eventually shut down all southbound lanes on the I-5 at the point of the crash, snarling traffic. The southbound lanes were affected for about two hours during the on-scene investigation.
CHP investigators were still probing Tuesday what caused the crash and whether or not alcohol or drugs were involved.
Friends and neighbors of the couple were at a loss for words Tuesday night.
Edwin Camacho said Jose and Ruth served with him as deacons at their church. He said they were always giving back.
"Jo Cortez and his wife Ruth are my best friends, to be honest. Very, very good friends," Camacho said. "A very helpful couple. That's how I describe them. They helped me a lot, too."
Neighbor Frank Quitasol said he lived next to the couple's Paradise Hills home for approximately 50 years.
"They are good people, they're nice," Quitasol said. "We miss them a lot, going to miss them a lot."