Gloucester County residents rushed out of their homes with fire extinguishers Sunday afternoon. Walter Capelli sprayed water on the Mazda3, flipped over and on fire on his front lawn after it collided with a propane tanker at Lake Road and West Boulevard in Franklin Township.
The crash claimed the lives of three members of the Cardoso-Baez family of Bridgeton, N.J., and left the youngest, an 11-year-old boy, in critical condition.
Capelli used a garden hose to put out the fire, extinguishing the flames in about 10 minutes.
He and his neighbors were the first of many in the township and the Cumberland County city of Bridgeton to rally alongside the Cardoso-Baez family members who are now grappling with the tragedy.
Mariela Cardoso-Baez, 19, was driving her brother, Jonathon, and their parents –– Jose Cardoso, 44, and Adriana Baez Mellado, 45 –– back from dinner. Traveling south on Park, their car struck a tractor-trailer hauling propane. Both vehicles skidded onto his lawn, Capelli said.
Authorities declared Mariela and her parents dead at the scene. Jonathon was airlifted to Cooper University Hospital in critical condition. The truck driver, Michael Brancu, 48, of Clementon, was treated for back and neck pain at a hospital, police said.
Memorial preparations are underway as the surviving family members raise money via a GoFundMe campaign. The page had garnered more than $9,000 of its $30,000 goal Tuesday.
Rosario Tlapa, 23, Mariela and Jonathan’s cousin, on Tuesday said Jonathon was transferred to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, where he is now stable. She said they expect Jonathan will remain hospitalized for up to two months.
Her aunt Leticia Baez of Bridgeton will care for Jonathan after he is released from the hospital, Tlapa said.
Mariela was a happy spirit who always smiled, Tlapa said, and was never the type to remain upset. She described her aunt and uncle, Mariela’s parents, as loving and caring, adding that they were a source of laughter at every family party.
“We just want the family to know that even though they left their son and Mariela’s brother behind, that we will take good care of him,” she said. “We just hope that they rest in peace. It was so unexpected what happened to them.”
The Cardoso-Baez family were longtime residents of Bridgeton. Jose and Adriana arrived about 25 years ago from Mexico. Jose worked alongside other relatives in Fairton on a farm. Adriana worked at the Centerton Nursery, tending to the plants.
Family members said Mariela had plans to attend college. While she was in high school, she received some education as a medical assistant from the Cumberland County Technical Education Center, Tlapa said.
For the last year, she had worked at Order Express on North Pearl Street in Bridgeton, a money services business, where her family had been customers for years.
“She was a good employee,” said Michaela Perez, 34, the store manager. “Very friendly with customers. A good daughter.”
Mariela graduated from Bridgeton High School in 2017, and Jonathon had just completed fourth grade at Quarter Mile Lane School.
“It’s a terrible tragedy," said Victor Gilson, the Bridgeton schools interim superintendent. He met with family members Tuesday afternoon and said the district will provide “whatever services they need, such as counseling.”
He said the district typically takes up collections in the wake of tragedies such as these, but instead is referring community members who wish to provide assistance to the GoFundMe site created by the family.
Lt. Matthew DeCesari of the Franklin Township Police Department said Tuesday no charges had been filed in the crash and the investigation is ongoing.
Capelli said he was outside with his 6-year-old son Sunday when he heard a “quick screech and an explosion.” He saw the propane tanker barreling toward him, so he grabbed his son, took him inside, and called 911.
Capelli said the Cardoso-Baez family gathered on his front lawn Monday for a vigil. Flowers and crosses remain at the site.
Capelli said Jonathon Cardoso-Baez was trapped in the Mazda for two hours Sunday afternoon as emergency response teams worked to remove him.
“I hope that the child recovers and isn’t scarred for life from all this,” Capelli said. “... I hope that he can live a normal life beyond this point.”