LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. - Zachary Freeman loved to fish, dirt bike and camp - but most of all, he loved to watch off-road truck racing in the vast Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles.
That love would cost the 24-year-old pipe welder and seven other off-road enthusiasts their lives when a truck competing in the annual California 200 careened off the sand track Saturday and into the crowd, instantly killing Freeman and his best friend.
On Sunday, his girlfriend and his stepfather mourned at a simple cross-and-stone memorial set in the thick sand and waited in the blistering heat for a locksmith to arrive to change the ignition lock in Freeman's truck so they could take it home. His keys had been lost in the chaos; the coroner found only a lighter in his pocket.
"I'm just in shock. It's not real yet, it hasn't soaked in," said Randall Peterson, his grieving stepfather.
Freeman's girlfriend, Nicky Carmikle, sobbed as she knelt down and placed her boyfriend's camouflage baseball hat in the center of the stone circle surrounding the wooden cross.
Carmikle recalled how she had stepped away from the race for a few minutes to use the bathroom and returned to find the truck upside down, bodies everywhere and people screaming in panic.
"His shoes are still over there. I can't even look," she said, gesturing to a bag full of abandoned clothing, shoes and blankets, some stained with blood. "It just isn't fair, it isn't right."
Those who witnessed the accident said the crowd pressed close to the track and could almost touch the trucks as they hurtled and bounced over the desert sand.
Shortly after the race began, one driver took a jump at high speed, hit his brakes on landing and rolled his truck sideways into spectators, sending bodies flying on a section of track that had no guardrails or anything else to keep the crowd back. Eight people were killed and 12 were injured.
"You could touch it if you wanted to. It's part of the excitement," Carmikle said. "There's always that risk factor, but you just don't expect that it will happen to you."
California Highway Patrol Officer Joaquin Zubieta said Brett M. Sloppy, 28, of San Marcos, was behind the wheel of the truck involved in the crash. Zubieta said alcohol was not a factor in the crash and there were no plans to arrest Sloppy, who the CHP estimates was going 45 to 50 mph at the time of the crash.
Zubieta said state vehicle codes don't apply because the race was a sanctioned event held with the approval of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land used for the race.
The BLM issued a statement saying safety was the responsibility of the race organizer, South El Monte-based Mojave Desert Racing. MDR's permit required racers to travel 15 mph or less when they were within 50 feet of fans, and allowed no more than 300 spectators for the event, the agency said.
BLM spokesman David Briery said the agency would cooperate with the CHP's investigation.
"We followed all our rules," he said by phone. "We don't think we did anything wrong."
Phone and e-mail messages left for MDR were not immediately returned.
Tens of thousands of people were spread out along the 50-mile track, but the site of the crash, a stretch known as the "rockpile," is one of the most popular areas to gather because the trucks become airborne, witnesses said.
Some said they got within 4 feet of the unmarked track, watching trucks fly over a series of jumps. Several jagged rocks jut from the rutted dirt track at the bottom of the hill.
The driver "hit the rock and just lost control and tumbled," said Matt March, 24, of Wildomar, who was standing next to the jump. "Bodies went everywhere."
Derek Cox, a friend of victim Andrew Therrien, told KABC-TV in Los Angeles that Theirren, 22, pushed children out of the way as the truck barreled toward them. He was killed in the accident.
"I owe my son's life, as well as many others. They were inches away from him and he saved their lives," Cox said of the Riverside resident. "He's a hero in my book."
March said he and other fans lifted the truck, which came to rest with its oversized wheels pointing toward the sky, and found four people lying unconscious underneath.
It took rescue vehicles and helicopters more than half an hour to reach the remote location, accessible only by a rutted dirt road. Spectators said off-duty police and firefighters in the crowd joined paramedics hired by the race organizer to help the injured and place blankets over the dead.
Six people died at the scene and two others died after being taken to a hospital, authorities said. Most of the 12 injured people were airlifted to hospitals.
Paramedics brought six people - five adults and a child - to Loma Linda University Medical Center, spokesman Herbert Atienza said Sunday. He had no information on their condition.
Officials said Sloppy, the driver, wasn't hurt. It was not clear why he lost control of the truck, a white modified Ford Ranger with "Misery Motorsports" painted on the doors.
A Facebook page that appeared to belong to Sloppy and included a picture of his truck was updated Sunday with a note: "Soo incredibly lost and devistated my thoughts and prayers go out to all the familys and friends involved.. Thank you too all my friends for sticking with me even thru these tragic times I love you all."
Nearly 40 friends responded with messages of support by Sunday afternoon.
The race is part of a series held in the Mojave Desert's Soggy Dry Lake Bed, about an hour's drive from the nearest city, Lucerne Valley.
The course winds through empty desert dotted only with rocky outcroppings and desert shrubs. Several families were still camping Sunday on a dried-up lake bed below the crash site. Buggies and dirtbikes zoomed back and forth, kicking up dust that could be seen for miles.
There were no barriers at the site of the crash. Fans said these races rarely have any kind of safety guards.
"That's desert racing for you," said fan John Payne, of Anaheim. "You're at your own risk out here. You are in the middle off the desert. People were way too close and they should have known. You can't really hold anyone at fault. It's just a horrible, horrible accident."
Briery said he didn't know if the BLM would conduct an internal investigation, and he added it was too early to say if the agency would change its permit rules to ensure stricter enforcement of safety requirements.
The BLM is required by Congress to make public lands accessible to reasonable requests, and the area used Saturday is one of the few available to off-road enthusiasts, he said.
The CHP does not normally investigate crashes at organized events, but took the lead on this probe because of its scope.
Aside from Freeman and Therrin, those killed were Brian Wolfin, 27, Anthony Sanchez, 23, and Aaron Farkas, 25, all of Escondido; Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas; and Dustin Malson, 24, of Ventura. The name of the eighth victim, a 34-year-old man from Spring Valley, had not been released by Sunday night.