Prom night, a crash and six teens lost


On Valentine’s Day, 1987, six teens were killed in a crash on a country road. I was nearing the end of my shift on this Saturday night when I heard a call on the radio of a serious car accident on a country road between McFarland and Delano, two neighboring farming towns about a half hour north of Bakersfield. I drove in from the McFarland side and right up to the scene. What I had arrived upon was a horrific scene of pure tragedy. Two vehicles, one carrying a group of Delano teens and the other a group of McFarland teens, had collided head on at high speed on the road. There were no skid marks. The speculation was they were playing “chicken.” Six of the teens were dead, killed instantly, and five others were injured. According to the CHP, none of the 11 teens in the two vehicles were wearing seat belts. It was a night time crash, and the officials had brought in portable lights to illuminate the scene. This would be a major investigation by the CHP’s major accident unit. I remember looking into one of the vehicles – it was a pickup truck – and seeing something I’ve never forgotten. Several of the teens, lying on top of the other, lay dead. If not for the knowledge of what had happened and the disintegrated exteriors of the vehicles, you would have thought they were sleeping. There was no blood, no dismemberment. Just what looked to be sleeping kids. And something else – one was clutching a pair of white sunglasses in his hand. He was wearing a tuxedo. It was prom night for one of the schools. I knew, of course, that I was shooting what was now one of the top news stories in the country. I had to shoot a picture that conveyed the tragedy, try to tell as much of the story in one image. This is that image. It would be yet another heartbreak for McFarland. The town was gripped with fear and uncertainty as children were dying – six in all – as part of an unsolved cancer cluster, and a year earlier, two runners on the high school’s girls cross country team were struck and killed by a truck as they were practicing. I don’t know if the CHP ever determined whether the two drivers were playing chicken, as they initially suspected. The CHP officer in the middle of this image is Travis Mitchell, who I got to know very well through the years, as I shot dozens of accidents that he worked.

The story would make headlines throughout the country. This is from the Lewiston, Maine Daily Sun.

8 thoughts on “Prom night, a crash and six teens lost

  1. I remember this crash vividly because my cousin Ralph Escalante Jr. was one of the drivers in the accident. We got a call in the middle of the night to inform us of this tragedy. What a terrible loss.

  2. This made my stomach hurt and my eyes burned with tears, as I to remembered this horrible, sad tragedy…and that phone call in the middle of the night. Our first born baby was just 3 months old. I did not remember that it was prom night. ..that just gave me chills.

    I never forgot this accident.
    We were related to one of the drivers and we adored the young man.

    We’d recently spent a weekend together and drove him back with us, in our little convertible Corvair… ands the kid was Hilarious! !

    Ralphie was truly a Light and he brought Happiness & Joy to everyone.

    This accident changed my life forever. I’ve changed my ways and have truly strived to be more cautious while on the road. .. I despise cell use while driving as a result of us losing Ralphie.

    I have often shared his story with my son’s who are now 29, 24 & 18…. I want them to know who he was. Ralphie is in Heaven and I know we all have a Special Angel watching over us.

    God Bless You. Jackie, Ralph & Priscilla as Valentines Day approaches.

  3. We had two sons in that horrific accident. Our younger 16 year old son was taken from us. They were in the pickup. Of the four in the pickup, we lost the driver, Ralphie and our son Sonnon. Our older son Roman and his girlfriend were critically injured but after many months rehabilitating they somehow survived. We thank God!!! And it was Valentine’s Day. It’s difficult to celebrate that holiday. Our Sonnon is missed everyday by all who knew him.

    1. That tragic accident affected so many people in the Delano community. We lost two of the most beloved the souls ever to walk this earth. Ralphie and Sonnon had such a profound impact on everyone they come in contact with. It didn’t matter if you were childhood friends or if it was the very first time ever meeting them. They had a way of making you feel special and that the friendship they offer was genuine and from the heart. My best friend Sonnon invited me to go with them that night. I wasn’t able to go due to being grounded for have bad grades. Until now almost 30 years later I still play the what if scenario in my head. What if I had gone with them? What if I had talked him into staying? What if??…
      You will forever live in my Heart and will never be forgotten my Brother.

  4. This has to be one the most horrific accident. Coming from McFarland with a son the age of these kids it made my heart break. My son’s best friend, Lionel Martinez was a passenger in the front seat of the car heading north and the driver, Efrin Rodriquez was the cousin of the girl he dating at the time. My son was a friend of most of the victims from McFarland as all of the passengers, except Efrin, went to McFarland schools. McFarland was so small then you knew just about everyone and their family. There is nothing worse than going to a funeral with four caskets holding four kids way to young to die. As bad as it sounds I was so glad my son had gone to get his girlfriend or he would have been the car. I don’t know if any conclusions were ever made as to what happened but I know it changed so many families lives and two towns that were never quite the same.

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