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Neighbor of Calif. Family Driven off Cliff by Father Says, 'We Don't Know What Goes on Behind Closed Doors'

People 3/16/2023 Christine Pelisek

Dharmesh Patel has been charged with three counts of attempted murder

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What witnesses saw around 10 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2023, was a white Tesla careening over the edge of Devil's Slide — a stretch of treacherous, rocky coastline on Highway 1 about 15 miles south of San Francisco.

The electric vehicle dropped some 300 feet before crash-landing just feet from the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

"I saw it disappear in midair, going down," Robin Johnson, who was driving by when the Tesla went over the cliff, tells PEOPLE. "When I pulled over to the side of the road and looked down, I could see the car all crushed and mangled. I think everyone thought that there were no survivors."

It turned out that all four passengers miraculously survived.

Dharmesh Patel, the 41-year-old driver, was seriously injured in the crash, along with his wife, Neha. Their daughter, then 7, and son, 4, were sitting in the back seat, both in car seats — one child required medical treatment, but the other sustained only "bumps and bruises, but no injuries," San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe says in this week's issue of PEOPLE.

Their survival stunned police and firefighters, who have responded to similar accidents at Devil's Slide every year and normally see tragic, gruesome fatalities.

Sgt Brian Moore/AP/Shutterstock © Provided by People Sgt Brian Moore/AP/Shutterstock

"My initial thought was that this is going to be a recovery, not a rescue," says Brian Pottenger, battalion chief of the Coastside Fire Protection District. "We initially sent two people down. When they were about halfway down, I had people up on top with binoculars trying to get a look at the vehicle. When they were about halfway down, those people notified me that they saw what appeared to be a hand movement through the front windshield of the vehicle. Then I immediately shifted gears from a recovery to a rescue."

Because of the bad weather and the damage to the Tesla, extracting the four passengers became extremely challenging.

"When we sent the second group of rescuers down, we sent extrication tools down with them, basically the jaws of life," Pottenger tells PEOPLE. "They had to use those mechanical tools to gain access to the vehicle. The doors were pinned between the rocks. It landed in a very big rock outcropping. The lower parts of the doors were blocked so we couldn't open them and they were damaged from the fall as well."

The children were rescued first. "My rescuers were able to remove the children from the window of the back seat, through the rear doors. We placed them in a basket and we set up a system to raise the children and two of our rescuers up the cliff."

"According to my rescuers, they were scared and they were nervous," says Pottenger. "They obviously just went through a traumatic situation. They were reacting appropriately to that … We were able to extricate and have them up to the road within 40 minutes."

From there, the children were immediately taken to the hospital via ground ambulance.

Their parents were next. "They opened part of the roof and the doors [with the extrication tools] and then they were taken out," says Pottenger. "They were placed one at a time into a basket and then hoisted up into a helicopter."

The fact all four survived was, "nothing short of miraculous," says Pottenger.

Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock Dharmesh Patel © Provided by People Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock Dharmesh Patel

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But the excitement was short-lived.

During the rescue, Neha Patel allegedly told paramedics that her husband "intentionally tried to kill us," says DA Wagstaffe.

Neha "didn't get into detail. She was then quickly rendered medical aid and that was the statements from her," he says.

Authorities spoke to witnesses after the crash and viewed surveillance video from the nearby Tom Lantos Tunnels, suspecting that Patel, a radiologist from Pasadena, had purposefully driven over the cliff in an attempt to kill himself and his family.

Patel was arrested at Stanford Hospital where he was suffering from major orthopedic injuries including spinal injuries, ankle and rib fractures.

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He since has been charged with three counts of attempted murder. Patel, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held without bail.

The charges against him have stunned people who lived near the Patels in Pasadena. "They were just a great all-around American family that goes out jogging and walks the kids," neighbor Roger Newmark tells PEOPLE. "They're just a very sweet family. I'm just shocked about the whole thing."

Related:Wife of Doctor Who Drove Tesla Off Cliff Doesn't Want Him to Face Charges, Lawyer says

The couple met as freshman at the University of California, San Diego, married in 2008 and started a family.

"I have loved and admired Dharmesh for being a devoted husband to my daughter and a loving and caring father to my grandchildren and showering my wife and I with total respect and care," Patel's father-in-law Shashi Kumar Bubna wrote in a letter of support filed in a motion to reduce bail.

Bubna wrote that Patel and his family visited him and his wife in Northern California for four days just before the Jan. 2 incident. "While staying with us, Dharmesh purchased the Warriors game tickets for himself and Neha for the night of Dec. 30, 2022, the game they did attend," he wrote. "During this 4-night visit to my home, I observed Dharmesh displaying his usual behavior as loving father and devoted husband. He followed his usual routine of playing for hours with his son and daughter or sitting on our family room floor, teaching his son numbers, alphabets and words. Every day Dharmesh and Neha went out for daytime walks and every night they went out for a drive after putting their children to bed. Dharmesh is calm and gentle in his interactions with others. I love Dharmesh and wish him the best."

Facebook Dharmesh A. Patel and his family © Provided by People Facebook Dharmesh A. Patel and his family

Related:Officials Say It's an 'Absolute Miracle' All 4 People Survived Tesla's Plunge Over Calif. Cliff

The question remains: Why would Patel, who has no previous criminal background, try to kill his family? Authorities have not established a possible motive in the alleged murder attempt — and are awaiting the pending examination of the car by the California Highway Patrol, expected to take several months. "Until we get that report back that there were no mechanical difficulties, we just don't know," says D.A. Wagstaffe.

Meanwhile, Patel's lawyer, Joshua Bentley, recently said in court that Neha does not wish her husband to be prosecuted. Says Newmark, "I know this family, and that's why I'm leaning towards some kind of a problem with the car. But we don't know what goes on behind closed doors. We'll just have to see what happens."

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 20.

Reporting by Wendy Grossman Kantor

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