OAKLAND -- Former Oakland Raiders linebacker Thomas Howard was driving "beyond recklessly" when he lost control of his BMW and crashed, killing himself and a Hayward man Monday morning, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol said Tuesday.
That much already has been determined by an initial investigation into the fatal wreck on Interstate 880, Officer Daniel Hill said Tuesday. And it's a conclusion that should not be overlooked, Hill said, even as investigators now delve into what may have caused Howard to fly down the freeway in excess of 100 mph.
"What we don't want to ignore here is the fact that an innocent (person) was killed in this collision because of the fact that someone else was driving recklessly. Beyond recklessly," Hill said. "Reckless driving was at the heart of this collision, and reckless driving can cause death just as easily as driving under the influence does."
Howard was less than a week removed from his Nov. 12 release by the Atlanta Falcons, the third team of his eight-year NFL career. Howard played for the Raiders from 2006-2010 and with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2011-2012. He had signed with the Falcons just three weeks before the fatal crash.
Investigators next will try to determine Howard's state of mind by attempting to create a profile of his final 24 hours, Hill said. The profile, which Hill said is common procedure in fatal wrecks, works to rule out possible causes of a wreck, he said.
However, Andrew Kessler, Howard's agent for the last half of his career, said he does not believe Howard was intentionally trying to harm himself or anyone else. Kessler said he spoke to the athlete the day he was released by the Falcons.
"He was in a great mood. His state of mind was completely normal. I am a thousand percent positive this was a complete accident," said Kessler, who works with the agency Athletes First in Laguna Hills. "I don't think anything in his life had anything to do with that accident. I'm as sure of that as I can be. I think it was a horrible accident that occurred."
The fiery crash happened around 12:50 a.m., when Howard was driving the BMW northbound on I-880 and hit the back of a big rig he was swerving to miss between 5th and 10th avenues, Hill said. The 30-year-old's car then flipped over the center median into the southbound direction and crushed a Honda CR-V driven by 64-year-old Zenglong Liu, of Hayward. Liu's family was not available for comment Tuesday.
Both Howard and Liu were pronounced dead at the scene, amid wreckage that Hill called "the worst levels of damage I've seen in a long, long time."
Howard's BMW was obliterated, with a hubcap and a BMW logo being the only recognizable parts left after the car flipped over more than six lanes of traffic before coming to a stop, Hill said.
Hill said that inspectors can use the demolished parts to determine how the cars collided and to reveal more clues such as whether something mechanically went wrong with the BMW.
Still, Hill said, most of the evidence points to speed.
"You can imagine the speed it would've taken for all of this to happen," Hill said. "With absolute certainty, the speed (Howard) was going played a prominent role. It's an accident that probably is prevented if he's not going as fast as he was going."
Thomas' grandmother, Darlene Howard, said by phone from the family's Lubbock, Texas, home Tuesday that the family is reeling and still trying to get answers themselves. She said Thomas Howard's father and a brother traveled to California after the wreck. Thomas Howard Jr. was living in Alameda.
"We're still trying to get whatever information we can get," she said. "We don't really have any information, and we want to know exactly what happened."
Kessler called Howard "An absolutely terrific guy. ... one of the best guys I've ever known in or out of football.
"He was a true friend, always the type of guy who was in a great mood. It's just a total tragedy for everyone involved."
A bouquet of flowers rested on Liu's porch in Hayward Tuesday, placed there by his next-door neighbor Peggy Thomas. Liu, a friendly neighbor who planted an avocado tree in his apartment complex's garden, lived there with his wife, neighbors said. Liu had recently returned from a vacation in China, they said. His wife stayed longer, and was returning home Tuesday, said neighbor Merinda Patterson.
"It's life changing for her," Patterson said. "They're very nice people. Mr. Liu was always smiling, waving."
Patterson said she was appalled by the speed at which Howard was reported to be traveling before the fatal crash.
Results from toxicology tests done during an autopsy on Howard could take up to eight weeks. The destruction at the crash prevented investigators from finding any obvious clues that Howard may have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol or both, Hill said.
"The whole thing is really sad, because it was preventable," he said. "It's especially tragic when you consider one of the people who died did not appear to be doing anything wrong."
Staff writer David DeBolt contributed to this story. Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789 and follow him at Twitter.com/3rdERH. Contact Kristin J. Bender at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at Twitter.com/kjbender.