ROHNERT PARK (CBS SF) — Students and staff at two Rohnert Park schools are grieving the loss of two sisters who died Wednesday when their mother’s car overturned and sank in the Petaluma River.

The crash off of Petaluma Boulevard North in Petaluma claimed the lives of 9-year-old Delilah Gonzalez and 7-year-old Sayra Gonzalez of Rohnert Park.

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The girls’ mother, Alejandra Hernandez, 26, of Rohnert Park, was able to escape the vehicle.

Delilah was a student at Waldo Rohnert Intermediate School and Sayra attended John Reed Elementary School, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District superintendent Robert Haley said.


Grief counselors and therapy dogs were at the school Thursday.

“We are giving the students an outlet to grieve and to be there for the family,” Haley said.

Haley said he did not know the girls personally, but they were well-loved and had many friends in the community.

California Highway Patrol officials said Hernandez was driving the girls to school around 8 a.m. when her 2006 Chevrolet Impala traveling north on Petaluma Boulevard North went into the center median, swerved back to the right, crossed all lanes and went off the road at Gossage Avenue.

The Chevrolet ran down a wooded embankment, struck trees and overturned in the Petaluma River located along the road, according to the CHP.

The car sank immediately, and a witness found Hernandez on top of the submerged car, CHP officials said.

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The Petaluma Fire Department, Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority, Wilmar Volunteer Fire Department, Petaluma police, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the CHP responded to the crash.

In an emailed account of the incident, Petaluma Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Holden said one of the Petaluma firefighters entered the water with a self-contained breathing apparatus.

With help from Petaluma police and other firefighters, the firefighter pulled the sisters one at a time from the car. The girls were carried up the bank of the river and resuscitation efforts began, Holden said.

Rescue efforts continued at Petaluma Valley Hospital but the girls succumbed to their injuries.

After the second girl was removed from the car, the firefighter with the breathing apparatus passed out and was assisted to shore and the top of the riverbank. He was taken to Petaluma Valley Hospital and was released several hours later, Holden said.

Another firefighter and a Petaluma police officer suffered a minor injury. All of the responders participated in critical incident stress defusing after the incident, Holden said.

CHP officials said Hernandez did not have a driver’s license and the cause of the crash is under investigation.

The tragedy was the second of its kind in Sonoma County within eight days.

Two Jenner girls, Hailey Markus, 4, and her sister Kaitlyn Markus, 6, died on Aug. 23 when their mother’s Ford F-250 truck drove off wet southbound state Highway 1 south of Jenner and down an embankment into the Russian River. Both girls also were on their way to school around 8:30 a.m.

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Their 32-year-old mother kicked out a window in the truck and tried to remove her daughters from the back seat, but the truck sank quickly in 15-20 feet of water, according to the CHP.