The lone survivor of a horrific weekend crash that killed three Northwest suburban teens said a last-second decision to buckle up may have saved his life.
"My mother said it's crazy that I'm not in a wheelchair," said Daniel Ascencio, 17, of Mount Prospect. "I have no broken bones or anything."
Killed in the crash were Freddy Najera, 16, of Mount Prospect; Jessica Ferrer, 15, of Arlington Heights; and Elibeth Solis, 16, also of Arlington Heights.
Ascencio said he believes the stolen car in which he and his friends were riding may have been traveling as much as 90 mph just after 3 a.m. Saturday when it plowed through a mailbox and into two trees outside a Prospect Heights home.
Ascencio said he strapped on his seat belt when the car began shaking and its driver, Solis, didn't heed his warnings to slow down. She may have lost control while talking to one of the teens in the back seat, he said.
"She said she didn't care when I told her to slow down," he said.
Ascencio, who will be a senior at Hersey High School, said that he was at Najera's home in the Boxwood neighborhood of Mount Prospect when the girls picked them up early Saturday morning in a 2002 Honda Accord.
"By the time they told us the car was stolen we were driving down Wheeling Road at 50 mph," he said. "It was stupid, but it was too late, we were driving down the street fast."
Ascencio said he knew the girls through Najera, but was not close to them.
The girls had beer, and all four were drinking and "under the influence," he said. The teens were driving home when the crash occurred along Camp McDonald Road, near the Prospect Heights police station.
Ascencio remembers the car shaking and then crashing through the mailbox and into the trees. The next thing he recalls is climbing out of the car in a panic because he thought he smelled fire and gas.
His vision blurred, he saw the others' bodies lying on the ground and was uncertain whether they were dead or alive. Then he fainted. When he woke up, firefighters were picking him up.
The Honda shattered on impact. Solis, Najera and Ferrer were thrown from the car on impact and died at the scene, authorities said. None were wearing seat belts.
"I'm shocked and sad, but I'm thankful, too, that I survived and for wearing the seat belt," Ascencio said.
When his mother learned of the crash, Ascencio said, she was not immediately aware of the carnage or the deaths.
"(She thought) it was a normal car crash, not one with blood on the trees and seats," Ascencio said. "At first she was mad at me thinking I was just being stupid, but when she learned other friends passed away she was thankful that I was alive."
"This scarred me for life," he added. "Everybody told me, 'You can't blame yourself, it's not your fault' and I know that. But what I saw, it's hard to get out of my mind. I have to remember the good times."
Family members of Najera, Ferrer and Solis declined to comment Monday.
In the meantime, friends and neighbors in Najera's Boxwood neighborhood pulled together and held a carwash to raise money for the victims' families. Village police eventually broke up the event late Monday afternoon because, they said, participants were disrupting traffic on nearby Euclid Avenue while trying to solicit customers.
Jan McKenzie and her husband, Rod, founders of the five-year-old Higher Up Ministries in the nearby Prospect Christian Church, were familiar with both Najera and Ascencio. Najera especially came to activities, Jan McKenzie said.
"Fred was polite to us and asked us if we needed any help. He was a helpful spirit," she said.
"We love this community, and we live in Boxwood," McKenzie added. "It has a reputation for being a hard community with gang activity. But they all gathered together really beautifully."
Mayte Ruiz, who was washing cars at the event, said Jessica Ferrer was a friend of her daughter and had been in her home frequently. Ruiz and her daughter, Jazzmine Hernandez, sold candy over the weekend to raise money for the victim's families.
Hernandez said she was not surprised that her friends were out in the middle of the night, but the stolen car was a real shock.
"I'm not going to say this was not like them," she said. "They liked to have a lot of fun."
Police from Prospect Heights and Mount Prospect continued to investigate the crash Monday and no decisions about possible charges had been made Monday.
Prospect Heights Chief Jamie Dunne said investigators are reconstructing the circumstances of the crash, as well as delving into how the four teens came to be in the stolen vehicle at 3 a.m.
Mount Prospect police Cmdr. John Wagner said there is no known connection between the stolen vehicle's owner and the four teens. The owner, who lives on the 700 block of North Eastman Drive in Mount Prospect, told police he may have left the keys in the 2002 Honda Accord after unloading groceries Friday night.
He didn't notice the vehicle missing and report it until 8:20 a.m. Saturday morning, Wagner said. It didn't take long after that to realize that the stolen vehicle was the one involved in the fatal crash five hours earlier.
Ferrer and Solis were students at Prospect High School, said Venetia Miles, director of community relations for Northwest Suburban High School District 214. Both girls had transferred to Prospect from Hersey High School, where Najera was a student. Ascencio also attends Hersey, Miles said.
• Daily Herald staff writers Paul Biasco, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Zuzanna Skwiot and Sam Wagner contributed to this story.