Tim Benner will always remember the haunting cries. "Not Mara! Not Mara!" John Steves had come upon paramedics working furiously to save the life of his wife, Mara Steves, after she was struck Sunday by colliding SUVs as she rescued a dog from traffic near her Laguna Niguel home.
"It was heart-wrenching," recalled Benner, who had administered CPR until relieved by paramedics. “He just threw himself over her. Then, the two kids came and it was so tough. One feels powerless in situations such as this.”
Despite the efforts of Benner and others, Mara Steves, 48, a beloved member of the community who had touched the lives of so many, died from her injuries. More than 400 people attended funeral services for Steves on Wednesday in Corona del Mar.
The animal whose life she saved has not been located, but officials believe it belongs to a boy in the neighborhood.
, Benner continues to relive the "surreal" experience of that sad event.
Sunday was supposed to be a much-needed day of escape for the Benner family. First, Tim Benner and his wife, Angel, took their four children to church. Then they were off to Disneyland. Their 10-year-old, Zach, had recently had some health issues, so they thought a day at the amusement park would do them good.
But as they approached the corner of Moulton Parkway and Nueva Vista, on their way to "The Happiest Place on Earth," that all changed. They came upon a horror scene. Mangled SUVs rested in awkward positions, the wheels of one still spinning from a very recent impact. A group of bystanders had gathered, appearing to be in shock, doing nothing. On a nearby lawn, a frightened young man was frantically performing CPR on what appeared to be a child. Benner had his wife pull over and he ran out to assist.
On the lawn he found not a child, but Steves, who moments earlier had been kneeling on the sidewalk near the busy intersection, holding back a dog she had rescued from traffic, when she was struck in a collision involving two SUVs, one of which may have ran a red light, authorities say.
When Benner arrived, the young man attempting to revive Steves was beginning to panic. His efforts were not working.
“He kept muttering that he couldn’t handle it and that it wasn’t working,” Benner said. “He was clearly shaken and he got up and ran away."
Benner took over the life-saving efforts, continuing to perform CPR. "There was another man, Blake, who was checking the victim’s pulse as I worked on compressions," he recalled. "There were about 20 people that were just standing around watching. I’m not sure if they were in shock or what."
Benner said he continued administering chest compressions while yelling to bystanders to call 911.
“There were no paramedics or sheriffs at the site for what seemed like a really long time,” he said. “I asked Blake if the victim had a pulse and he said he didn’t feel one. When the sheriff arrived, he pulled out a bag that had a device in it that goes over the face, like an oxygen mask, but it appeared to be dismantled and couldn’t be used. It was inoperable.
“When the paramedics came, they asked that I continue to work on Mara while they applied chest pads/EKG readers … that is when I stepped away … (Steves') family came soon thereafter."
According to sheriff's officials, a 27-year-old man was driving a Ford Explorer and a 59-year-old man was driving a Toyota 4Runner. Alcohol has been ruled out as a factor in the crash, but officials are still awaiting the results of additional toxicology tests.
The occupants in the vehicles suffered minor injuries, officials said.
A Tight Community
On Monday evening, at the site of the crash.
"So many people were there; my pastor, and so many friends,” Benner said. “It just goes to show how tight this community really is. I never realized it until now. I knew 50 percent of the people that were at the memorial.”
A lifeguard during college, Benner said this was the first time he had administered CPR.
Benner says he goes to bed at night praying for the family, but also worries about a teenager named John Frank, who had stayed by his side as he worked to save Steves.
John, 17, goes to school with Benner’s older daughter at Aliso Niguel High School.
"He saw the entire accident with his mom," Benner said. "John was there with me trying to save Mara. He was with me every step of the way. He is the hero. He was brave beyond his years and I am concerned about him."
Benner said he wrote a "long letter" to John that night.
"I want him to come out of this stronger, not weaker," Benner said. "I want him to know that courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it. He needs to know that it is OK to be scared."
Brenner said John "acted beyond his years."
"Adults were stand-offish or literally sick to their stomachs and John was there asking me how he could help. But I know it has been traumatic for him."
Benner said plans to meet with the boy he called an inspiration in the days ahead.
Anger in Community
Benner echoed the concerns others in the community have expressed about speeding vehicles on Moulton Parkway.
“I know of at least four accidents that have happened at the same intersection or at the Moulton/Rancho Niguel intersection a half mile north of the accident, but nobody has ever died,” he said. “People drive 50 and 60 miles an hour inside the tracts. I’m actually convinced that I have to move my family from our house."
Benner said there is a perception in the community that not enough is being done to slow drivers down.
“I wrote a letter on this subject to my HOA and the response was great," Benner said. "People want to take the streets back and they want action by the authorities. Perhaps Mara’s tragedy can ignite and mobilize people to be safe."
The investigation into the crash in continuing, authorities said.