Update: Memorial celebration to be held Sunday (July 31).
A Palo Alto family of four was killed on a Canadian highway Friday afternoon when their camper van collided head-on with a tractor trailer in Kootenay National Park in British Columbia.
Family members identified the victims as Robert Howard, 49, his wife Ana-Maria Dias, 50, and their daughters Samantha, 11, and Veronica, 9.
A memorial celebration for the family will take place on Sunday (July 31) at 3 p.m. at El Carmelo Elementary School, 3024 Bryant St., Palo Alto, according to relatives. Volunteers are needed and can sign up at VolunteerSpot.com.
The family was driving northbound in a Dodge camper when an oncoming tractor-trailer crossed the center divider and collided with the Dodge, pinning it against a barrier and causing both vehicles to ignite, CBC News reported.
Police said the driver of the Dodge tried to swerve but was unable to avoid the collision, according to news reports. Witnesses were able to help the driver of the tractor-trailer out of his vehicle but could not help the family in the van because the flames were too intense, CBC reported.
Photos published by the Columbia Valley Pioneer Newspaper showed the collision occurred on a curved and rain-slickened mountain road. The traffic lanes are delineated by painted lines but no road fixtures.
Palo Alto police would not comment on the collision and referred inquiries to the Vancouver authorities. Calls to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Vancouver Police Department were not returned Saturday.
According to the CBC, the driver of the truck was detained at the scene and later released without charges.
News of the crash quickly rippled through Palo Alto's community Saturday afternoon, with dozens of shocked residents offering their condolences and recollections of the family on a website set up by Howard's family.
Friends and family described Robert Howard and Ana-Maria Dias as a creative, bright and hospitable couple who were deeply involved in their community and who loved to explore the outdoors. Their daughters Samantha and Veronica went to school at JLS Middle School and El Carmelo Elementary School, respectively.
The family went camping every year, said Cindy Howard, Robert's sister-in-law.
"Any time they had a three-day weekend, they went away with the girls," Cindy Howard said. "They liked discovering the wilderness, finding a forest or a service land where they can go and explore that place completely."
She described Robert Howard as the "consummate engineer." According to a biography the family published on the website, Robert Howard graduated from Stanford University with an engineering degree and worked for Apple Computer before joining Lunar, a San Francisco-based company, in 1996.
Cindy Howard called him "one of the most creative people I've ever known." She said he enjoyed tinkering and fixing objects and making sure everything always ran absolutely perfectly.
Cindy Howard told Palo Alto Online that Robert's projects included completely rebuilding his Suzuki Jeep. She described him as "amusing and entertaining." He also loved to take camping trips
with the whole extended family, according to the family's website. These included trips to Cambria and Death Valley.
Ana-Maria Dias shared her husband's love for the outdoors. A well-known volunteer in the Palo Alto school community, Dias moved to the United States from Angola during the late 1970s, according to the family's website. She volunteered at JLS and El Carmelo, where she helped organize fundraising events. Numerous friends and fellow volunteers praised Dias' positive energy, creativity and dedication to education on the family's website.
"Ana-Maria's positive attitude, energy, sense of inquiry and dedication were amazing and inspiring to witness," Kathy Schroeder, a longtime school volunteer, wrote on the site.
Rebecca Davis also commented and called Dias "one of the most creative, upbeat, positive people I have ever had the pleasure to know; her energy and ideas were endless."
"We knew this wonderful family years ago through PreSchool family and cherished their presence in the Palo Alto Community." wrote Lucy Filppu, a teacher at Palo Alto High School. "Our hearts are sick with this tragedy."
Cindy Howard said she particularly recalls Dias' hospitality, energy and penchant for bringing people together for a good cause. When Samantha started getting interested in soccer, Dias helped organize an informal workshop for her daughter and other children, Howard said. She said Dias always cared deeply about her community and described Dias as extremely "gracious and hospitable."
"One of the first things I remember about Ana-Maria was when I met her, she and her two sisters would come over and when they left the house would look better than it did before," Cindy Howard said.
Robert Howard's and Ana-Maria Dias' two daughters appeared to have shared their parents' passion for exploration. Samantha, who was preparing to start seventh grade at JLS, was very comfortable meeting new people and trying out new activities, Cindy Howard said. She enjoyed drama and volleyball, and recently competed in a volleyball tournament.
"She was very outgoing," Cindy Howard said. "When I spoke to the principal at JLS, she said everyone knows Samantha. She just connected with lots of different people."
She described Samantha's younger sister, Veronica, as a little quieter than Samantha, as well as "very creative and artistic." But Veronica was also beginning to pick up her father's enthusiasm for off-road motorcycling. Robert Howard's sister, Kim Saxe, recalled on the family's website one of her final conversations with Robert. He reportedly told her "how excited he was that Nica expressed an interest in trying off-road motorcycling."
"Within the last month he took her to try, out to Hollister State Vehicular Recreation Area, and she absolutely loved it," the website states. "Howard was over the moon."