By Alan Duke
SANTA CLARITA, California (CNN) — Actor Paul Walker, who shot to fame as star of the high-octane street racing franchise “Fast & Furious,” died in a fiery car crash in Southern California on Saturday. He was 40.
Walker was in the passenger seat of a 2005 Porsche Carrera GT, driven by a racing team partner, that slammed into a light pole and burst into flames in an office park in the community of Valencia in Santa Clarita, about 30 miles north of Hollywood.
Walker’s publicist Ame van Iden confirmed his death Saturday. The driver, identified by CNN affiliate KCAL-TV as Roger Rodus, also died.
“Thank you all for your condolences and prayers while we mourn the loss of our loved ones,” read a message posted on the Facebook page for Always Forever, the high-performance car shop owned by Rodus.
Los Angeles Coroner Investigator Dana Bee told CNN on Sunday it would likely take 48 hours to officially identify the remains taken from the twisted wreckage. The families are gathering dental records for use in the identification, which is necessary because of the condition of the bodies, Bee said.
Speed was a factor in the crash, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office said. A 45 mph speed limit sign was attached to the light pole knocked down by the Porsche.
The car, which sold for $450,000 when new, is a notoriously difficult vehicle to handle, even for professional drivers, according to Autoweek magazine. A top driver called it “scary,” the magazine reported Sunday. It is powered by a V-10, 610-hp engine.
The wreck took place about 3:30 p.m. just a few hundred yards from the shop owned by Rodus. Both men had attended a holiday toy drive for Walker’s charity, Reach Out Worldwide, hosted at the shop Saturday afternoon.
Antonio Holmes told the Santa Clarita Valley Signal newspaper that he was at the charity event when Walker and Rodus left for a ride in the Porsche.
“We all heard from our location,” Holmes told the Signal. “It’s a little difficult to know what it was. Someone called it in and said it was a vehicle fire. We all ran around and jumped in cars and grabbed fire extinguishers and immediately went to the vehicle. It was engulfed in flames. There was nothing. They were trapped. Employees, friends of the shop. We tried. We tried. We went through fire extinguishers.”
A crowd of grieving fans, curious onlookers and media surrounded the crash site for hours, watching as investigators and firefighters worked to extract the bodies from the wreckage. A memorial of flowers, left by fans, remained on the charred roadside Sunday.
Walker and Rodus had planned Saturday as a day to help survivors of victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The car shop website invited customers to the Charity Toy Drive & Automotive Social Gathering.
“During the holiday season, many economically disadvantaged children from around the world are faced with the same dilemma year after year; the lacking of joy and cheer,” the invitation read. “Our goal here is to be able to provide aid to these less fortunate children in hopes of helping them grow up to become confident, responsible and productive young adults.”
Walker’s charity is described as “a network of professionals with first responder skill-sets who augment local expertise when natural disasters strike in order to accelerate relief efforts.”
The website lists Rodus as captain and lead driver of the shop’s racing team. Walker is also listed as a team driver.
Tales of the actor’s philanthropy are not new. CNN confirmed one story from a decade ago when Walker noticed a young U.S. military veteran shopping with his fiance for a wedding ring in a Santa Barbara jewelry store.
“The groom was just back from duty in Iraq, and he was going to be deployed again soon and wanted to buy a wedding ring, but he said he just could not afford it,” saleswoman Irene King told CNN. “I don’t think the soldier realized how expensive those rings are, about $10,000.”
Although Walker noticed them, the couple apparently did not know who he was, King said.
“Walker called the manger over and said, ‘Put that girl’s ring on my tab,’ ” she said. “Walker left all his billing info, and it was a done deal. The couple was stunned. She was thrilled and could not believe someone did this.”
King called it “the most generous thing I have ever seen.”
Box office success
Walker’s career began on the small screen, first with a commercial for Pampers when he was 2, and then with parts in shows such as “Highway to Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel.”
His first few movie roles were as supporting characters in teen flicks, most notably in “Varsity Blues.”
His career really took off when he was cast as undercover cop Brian O’Conner infiltrating a street-racing gang in 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious.”
The box-office success of the surprise summer hit yielded numerous sequels. And along with Vin Diesel, Walker was one of the franchise stalwarts.
At the time of his death, he was working on the seventh film of the franchise, due out next year.
Walker wasn’t just a car enthusiast on the silver screen; offscreen, the actor competed in the Redline Time Attack racing series.
On his verified Twitter account, Walker described himself as “outdoorsman, ocean addict, adrenaline junkie … and I do some acting on the side.”
Walker also is the star of “Hours,” an independent film scheduled to be released December 13 about a father struggling to keep his newborn infant alive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Twitter and other social media exploded with reactions to Walker’s death.
“Completely numb and saddened to hear of the tragic death of Paul Walker,” wrote one.
Hollywood condolences came from Will Smith, Jack Osbourne, DMX and others.
“No, @RealPaulWalker. No. No. No,” tweeted actress Alyssa Milano. Walker appeared with her as a guest star in the ’80s comedy “Who’s the Boss?” “Rest with the angels. You. Sweet boy. #beauty #love #RIP.”
Walker is survived by his 15-year-old daughter, Meadow.
CNN’s Alan Duke reported from Santa Clarita; Joe Sutton from Atlanta. CNN’s Paul Vercammen, Greg Botelho, David Simpson and Jackie Castillo also contributed to this report.
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