Nineteen-year-old Jeanette Montes, who died Monday after the SUV she was driving flipped several times on northbound Highway 101, had told her best friend that she never liked driving on the freeway.
“She always told me she was scared. She would take the back roads,” said Marisela De Alba, who met Montes while they were both students at Liberty High School in Paso Robles.
At 4:08 p.m., Montes drifted onto the right shoulder, just north of Highway 46 West, and turned sharply to the left, causing the 2002 Ford Explorer to roll at least two times before coming to a rest and catching on fire, according to police reports.
Montes was pronounced dead at the scene; her brothers survived with minor injuries. One boy, 6, was seated in a car seat in the middle rear of the vehicle, while his 15-year-old brother was seated on the right front side.
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The three siblings were returning from the Atascadero Walgreens, where they had gone to pick up a prescription, De Alba said. All were wearing seatbelts, and alcohol or impaired driving are not suspected to have caused the crash, according to the CHP. Montes did not appear to be speeding, CHP Sgt. Frank Packard said.
Lori Radecki of Paso Robles saw the accident from the southbound lanes. “I keep playing it over and over in my head. The car did something unfamiliar to me. … It took its first flip less than a second after jerking to the left.”
The car landed right-side up. Radecki saw a woman with a red shirt immediately run up to the car and extract the 6-year-old from the back seat. Another citizen responder jumped over the center divider to help.
“There were two men just trying to pull her door open. They were grunting so hard. They did the best that they could. I don’t think they even noticed when the car caught fire” two minutes after the crash, Radecki said.
Jim Norman, who owns Norman Vineyards in Paso Robles, was one of at least three people who stopped to rescue the occupants of the car.
“The first thing I did was made the decision that she was deceased. Then I ripped open the passenger front door. … I think everyone was doing instinctually what they knew needed to be done. … There’s no glory in it,” Norman said.
“The little boy that was in the back seat, the look on his face is etched in my brain. … It was utter terror,” he said.
After the 15-year-old was freed, Norman said two men cut Jeanette Montes’ seatbelt and pulled her out of the car through the passenger side.
Montes was a 2012 graduate of Liberty High School and a Cuesta College student who worked at Dragon Palace King Buffet, a Chinese restaurant in Paso Robles, De Alba said. She dreamed of attending cosmetology school.
“She was such a girly girl. Her favorite color was hot pink. She always wore jewelry,” De Alba said.
De Alba described Montes — her “partner in crime” — as happy, hardworking, and spontaneous. “Even if she was down, she would always give you a big smile. She treated people the way she liked to be treated,” De Alba said. “I thank God for the little bit of time I had with her.”
The Montes family declined to talk with The Tribune on Tuesday but provided a photo of Jeanette.
People who wish to assist the family with funeral expenses can mention Jeanette Montes at any Chase Bank in San Luis Obispo County to make a donation to a benevolent account, a bank employee confirmed. For donation details, call 805-238-5751.