California Highway Patrol Officer Jonathan Sloat on Wednesday was heading to the memorial of a pair of young girls killed in a tragic car accident in Jenner last week. Instead, he was forced to respond to yet another fatal collision, this time in Petaluma, involving two sisters, whose mother was allegedly driving without a license.
The Rohnert Park siblings — Sayra,7, and Delilah Gonzalez, 9, — drowned around 8 a.m. when the 2006 Chevrolet Impala being driven by their mother slid off the road and overturned in the Petaluma River, Sloat said.
Wednesday's crash comes about a week after 4-year-old Hailey and 6-year-old Kaitlyn Markus died in nearby Jenner when their mother's truck plummeted into the Russian River.
According to Sloat, the Gonzalez girls' mother, identified as 26-year-old Alejandra Hernandez, "overcorrected" when the vehicle, for a still unknown reason, veered over the center median. The car careened to the right, crossed all lanes and ran off the road.
Sloat said the car then fell down an embankment, smacked into trees and plunged into the river, where it flipped over and sank.
"They had just dropped off someone at work in Petaluma and were on their way back to Rohnert Park to drop the kids off" at Waldo Rohnert Elementary School, Sloat said.
A witness, who rushed to the scene, found Hernandez perched on top of the Impala. She told him about her daughters being trapped, but they were unable to reach the children before the car filled with water, Sloat said. A chaplain was called around 8:30 a.m.
"We're trying to investigate were they in car seats or seat belts," Sloat said.
Firefighters and eight police officers from Petaluma and nearby Rancho Adobe slid down the embankment and dove into the water to pull the girls out of the vehicle. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Dive Team also helped to recover evidence and the car.
Sloat did not know how long the children had been underwater but said they were pronounced dead at Petaluma Valley Hospital. A Petaluma officer and Hernandez, who was found to be unlicensed and declined hospitalization, suffered minor injuries, he said.
Video at the Petaluma scene shows a woman in a white T-shirt covering her eyes and crying and a man being wrapped in a white blanket. A younger woman is seen screaming in the background. Crews in yellow jackets were seen walking down the embankment to get to the creek.
Peter Welker doesn't know the family but knows the pain of losing a child. He came to pay his respects.
"Pain is pain, no matter how you deal with it," he said. "Losing a child is very difficult."
Officers took blood from Hernandez to test for drugs and alcohol, which is a normal procedure after a fatal accident, Sloat said.
"Our deepest sympathies go out to their family," Sonoma County sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Crum said.
Parents at Waldo Rohnert Elementary were having a emotional talks with their kids about losing two classmates.
"He was asking questions; we explained, but he was sad pretty sad," one parent said about her son. Grief counselors will be on campus Thursday.
CHP Officer Steve Fricke said the deaths and ensuing investigation prompted the closure of the northbound lane of Petaluma Boulevard North between Gossage Avenue and Skillman Lane for nearly six hours.
The CHP is looking into why Hernandez lost control of the car. There is no word as of Wednesday evening whether she will face charges in connection with the deadly crash.
NBC Bay Area's Rick Boone, Jean Elle and Bay City News contributed to this report.