‘A terrible accident.’ 911 calls reveal race to revive 6-year-old after fiery crash

·4 min read

A sports car driving “like a bat out of hell.” A collision. A car engulfed in flames. A stranger giving CPR to a young boy who wasn’t breathing.

“There’s been a terrible accident.”

Those were among the distraught reports that 911 callers relayed to dispatchers after the June 26 crash in Gaston County that killed 6-year-old Liam Lagunas, according to recordings the Charlotte Observer obtained after a fight for the public records.

The Observer petitioned the court to release the recordings after the Gaston County District Attorney sought to keep them confidential. On Tuesday, state Superior Court Judge Forrest Bridges ordered local officials to release nine 911 calls made after the fatal wreck on the night of June 26. That, authorities say is when a 100 mph street race on U.S. 74 ended in a fiery disaster.

The judge allowed one call to remain under wraps. Lasting more than 11 minutes, it was made by Gracie Eaves, one of the drivers charged in the crash, the Observer has learned. Eaves is charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The other driver, Donnie Ray Cobb, is charged with second-degree murder, DWI and other offenses. He slammed into the car carrying Liam and his father after losing control of his own while racing with Eaves, police say.

Liam Lagunas shows off his new haircut in September 2020, nine months before his death.
Liam Lagunas shows off his new haircut in September 2020, nine months before his death.

The first 911 call came in at 9:23 p.m. A red sports car hit another car, knocking it across the highway and into oncoming traffic, the caller said.

“The red car came around us ... like a bat of hell and just slammed on into the other one and just took off,” the unidentified caller said.

Eaves was driving a red Dodge Challenger and Cobb was driving an Audi, according to the state Highway Patrol. Both cars were racing as fast as 100 mph before they sideswiped, sending Cobb’s car across a median and into the Nissan Altima that Liam’s father was driving, the report states.

While on the phone, the first 911 caller walked across U.S. 74 to give the dispatcher a better feel of what was going on.

“Oh God...They just pulled a child that looks like it’s unconscious out of the car,” the caller said. “...That was the one that was hit head on.”

“Ma’am, there is a car on fire right now. …they’re trying to do CPR on the child right now. ...He’s not breathing, no ma’am ...The pulse is going in and out so he’s in very serious condition right now.”

“Ma’am, this car is engulfed in flames. It looks like it’s about to explode.”

The 911 dispatcher instructed the caller to tell everyone to move away from the burning car.

Brandi Birrittier lost her 6-year old son, Liam Lagunas, in June, 2021, after two people were engaged in a street race in Gaston County. The two drivers have been charged. She is lobbying for a stronger law and wants it names as Liam’s Law.
Brandi Birrittier lost her 6-year old son, Liam Lagunas, in June, 2021, after two people were engaged in a street race in Gaston County. The two drivers have been charged. She is lobbying for a stronger law and wants it names as Liam’s Law.

For an in-depth story detailing the crash and Cobb’s lengthy record of speeding charges and license suspensions, the Observer spoke with a witness who performed CPR on Liam. He said the boy appeared to have a faint pulse by the time paramedics arrived. Liam was rushed to the hospital but did not survive the night.

Officials did not release the identities of any of the 911 callers that night. State law says that while the contents of 911 calls are public records that only a judge can exempt from release, identities of the callers are not public.

A few minutes after the first call, another witness called 911 to request both the fire department and an ambulance.

“I need everything,” the caller said. “There’s a car on fire. A kid’s not breathing right now.”

The caller later appeared to hand the phone over to a man doing CPR.

“I’m certified in CPR,” the man said. “He has a pulse but he doesn’t look like he’s breathing. I’m continuing with CPR.”

“Is he away from the vehicle?” the dispatcher asked.

“We’re moving him now,” the man replied. “The car is heavily on fire.”

Family and friends created this memorial along U.S. 74 in Gaston County to remember 6-year old Liam Lagunas, who was killed at the site in June.
Family and friends created this memorial along U.S. 74 in Gaston County to remember 6-year old Liam Lagunas, who was killed at the site in June.

A dispute over the records began in late August, when a Charlotte Observer reporter requested recordings of the calls. County officials refused to share them, noting that the county District Attorney did not want them released.

Jon Buchan, an attorney representing the Observer, notified county officials that only a judge has the authority to block the release of such records under state law. Subsequently, the county filed motions to prevent the records from being disclosed. After a lengthy hearing on the issue earlier this month, the judge on Tuesday ordered the release of most of the calls.

What happened the night of the crash has happened before. “Death in the Fast Lane,” an investigation by the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer this year, found that extreme speeding is rampant on North Carolina roads, and that the consequences can be deadly. Despite that, the state’s courts let thousands of those speeders off easy.

Cobb, the driver charged with murder in Liam’s death, previously was charged with dozens of offenses — including at least 10 previous speeding charges, N.C. court and DMV records show. Courts reduced or dismissed the large majority of those speeding charges, the Observer found.

Editors note: This story was updated to note that Gracie Eaves, one of two people facing criminal charges for the crash, was driving a red car.

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