Friends, teachers and fellow parishioners at St. James Catholic Church and School in Redondo Beach knew 6-year-old Samuel Gaza as a “lively, funny and friendly” kindergartener who “had fun with everybody” and liked football.
On the evening of Dec. 17, Samuel sang happily alongside his classmates during his school’s annual Christmas show just before tragedy struck. This tight-knit community is still reeling from the sudden loss of Samuel and three others after a fatal car accident following the student performance.
A speeding driver ran a nearby red light and plowed through the crosswalk filled with pedestrians leaving the concert. The horrific crash resulted in grave injuries that proved fatal for Samuel as well as his mother, 36-year-old Martha Gaza, a beloved classroom parent who “organized everything for the kids,” and was a “wonderful mom, wife and friend.”
The accident also fatally injured Mary Wilson, 81, and Saeko Matsumura, 87, who had both attended the Christmas show to see their grandchildren perform.
Several others were injured in the crash and remained hospitalized at press time, including Matsumura’s daughter, Karen Lem, and Lem’s son, an eighth grader at St. James School, and Samuel’s father, Glen Gaza. Mr. Gaza’s two other children, daughters in second and fifth grade at St. James School, were both hurt in the accident, but were treated and later released and are being cared for by relatives.
According to Sister Mary Margaret Kreuper, CSJ, principal of St. James School, counselors from the archdiocese and Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance met with parents and students throughout the day Dec. 19, and have spent several hours with school faculty and staff to discuss the best ways to continue supporting the students when they return to school following the Christmas break.
In the aftermath of the tragedy the focus remains on “holding each other in prayer and being here for the children [and] their parents,” she explained, adding. “It’s about relying on God’s blessings … and knowing that he is always with us.”
It isn’t always easy to believe, she said.
“We cannot make sense of this tragedy … and sometimes we do question, ‘Where is God in all of this?’” Sister Kreuper told The Tidings. “We believe that God is present in the firefighters, in the police officers, in the parents who are offering support [and] service at this time — that’s where we find God right now, in the midst of all this. His loving presence comes through our school community.”
Deacon Bob Miller and his wife, Patty, longtime parishioners at St. James, are among those offering their presence and support to the affected families. After receiving a 3 a.m. phone call in the early hours after the accident, the couple immediately went to the hospital to serve the surviving and injured members of the Gaza family, to “listen to them and simply be present.”
“It’s times like these that ... we relearn the fact that this life is way beyond our control,” Deacon Miller said. “We are powerless in reality. The trust and the faith that we have in God is what brings us through the most miserable of experiences.”
At press time, funeral services for the deceased were still pending.
The parish community of St. James Church has established the “St. James Redondo Beach Victims Fund” to provide monetary assistance to the affected families for funeral expenses and other costs associated with the tragedy, such as medical bills. Those interested in helping can make a donation online (www.archla.org/sjvf). Condolences can be mailed to: St. James Church, 415 Vincent Street, Redondo Beach, CA 90277; Attn: Msgr. Michael Meyers.
The driver in the accident, Margo Bronstein, 56, is accused of driving while under the influence of prescription medication, according to the Redondo Beach Police Department.
Bronstein, who was born with disabilities and uses a specially-equipped car to drive, was arraigned Dec. 19 and pleaded not guilty to four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter and one count of driving under the influence of a drug causing injury.
She is being held on $500,000 bail and is due back in court in January. If convicted on all counts, Bronstein faces up to 40 years in prison.