SAN JOSE -- An unspecified mechanical problem caused an open-air Jeep to roll over on a rural dirt road Thursday night, flinging three people from the vehicle and killing a 51-year-old San Jose man still inside, the California Highway Patrol said.
Compounding the tragedy is that the man who died was the only passenger wearing a seat belt. The other three occupants escaped with minor injuries.
It was part of a chaotic scene that included a grass fire sparked after the Jeep went off the roadway and into a ravine, and the remote site hampered firefighters' ability to respond quickly.
According to the CHP, around 7 p.m. four people were traveling on a private road on Richmond Ranch -- northwest of where San Felipe and Metcalf roads meet in the hills south of San Jose -- when their Jeep CJ-5 became disabled for an unknown reason.
The vehicle rolled over and caught fire, starting a vegetation blaze that would consume six acres before Cal Fire crews extinguished it. They reported needing an hour to find the vehicle because of access issues and the crash's relatively uncharted location.
The San Jose man who died was the right-front passenger of the Jeep; his identity was not available Friday. His wife was one of the survivors.
CHP Officer Chris Falkowski said it is unusual for someone wearing a seat belt to be the most severely injured in a crash involving other unrestrained passengers, and stressed that motorists should continue to wear seat belts when traveling in a motor vehicle.
"This traffic collision was not your average traffic collision. It happened on a rural dirt roadway, not an asphalt roadway with guardrails and barriers," Falkowski said. "Every collision has a different set of circumstances. Still, always wearing your seat belt is the safest way to travel in a vehicle wherever you are, whether on a mountainous road or a five-lane freeway."
The crash remains under investigation.
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.