A commuter van carrying employees from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory plunged down a steep mountain ravine in Angeles National Forest above La Cañada this morning, killing three people and leaving several others trapped in the vehicle, authorities said.
The white van was carrying 10 people from the Antelope Valley when it drove off Angeles Forest Highway near Angeles Crest Highway about 6:30 a.m. and tumbled 400 feet down a hillside, officials said. All the injured victims were airlifted to hospitals, officials said. Three were described as being in critical condition, three in serious condition, and one person suffered only minor injuries.
Television reports showed rescue workers pulling victims from the crushed vehicle and strapping them onto stretchers; others were lifted directly into helicopters that hovered above the fog-shrouded hillsides.
"It's ugly," said Mike Leum, chief of search and rescue for Los Angeles County. "The roof is collapsed."
Officials at JPL, which has managed numerous space missions, said six passengers in the van were JPL employees, two were contractors and two were employed by NASA.
The three dead were identified by JPL as Jane Frances Galloway, 49, of Lancaster; Kerri Lynn Agey, 48, of Ontario, and Dorothy Marie Forks, 53, whose hometown was not available, according to the Los Angeles County coroner.
"It is a very, very sad day for all of us," said JPL spokesman Blaine Baggett.The carpool van was transporting employees from the Lancaster-Palmdale area to the JPL campus in the foothills of La Cañada Flintridge. About 450 of the laboratory's estimated 5,500 workers use vanpools to get to work, Baggett said.
Those vans are leased to JPL employees, who drive their co-workers to work along a route of their choosing, Baggett said. The assumption in this accident is that one of those employees was driving the van when it careened off the road, he said.
The California Highway Patrol said Angeles Forest Highway was closed between Angeles Crest Highway and Big Tujunga Canyon Road. Mountain roads were damp from evening rains, and heavy fog hampered visibility, according to CHP officials.
The narrow and winding Angeles Forest Highway has become a heavily traveled commuter shortcut between the Antelope Valley and Los Angeles for drivers looking to avoid the congested 14 and 5 freeways, according to National Forest Service officials.
"We call it the Palmdale 500 because of the speed people do. It's like a racetrack," said Steve Gonzalez, a U.S. Forest Service engineer at the Clear Creek Station, a mile from the accident scene.
A witness in a vehicle behind the commuter van saw it plunge over the edge, said CHP spokesman Jon Samson. The witness continued up the road about one mile, where two CHP officers happened to be on duty with a film crew shooting in the area.
U.S. Forest Service Capt. Tony Martinez was one of the first to arrive on the scene and scramble down the steep slope thick with brush. One passenger, who had managed to climb three-quarters of the way up the ravine, instructed Martinez and others down the mountainside, from where he could hear the van's horn blowing.
"Help them," Martinez recalled the man saying. "We're coming," Martinez recalled yelling.
Arriving at the van, Martinez said he found a gruesome scene. The commuter van was on its wheels, and the roof had collapsed on the passengers inside, some of whom he could hear yelling for help.
For several hours, more than two dozen members of rescue teams from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the U.S. Forrest Service and the CHP removed the victims using a winch system to bring rescuers into the ravine. At least two rescue helicopters were used to pull victims out.
Firefighters collected debris spewed from the van as it tumbled: a pair of eyeglasses and a pair of sunglasses, a purse, loose receipts clinging to bushes, two identification badges.
"In a remote area with no cell phone coverage, the fact that a witness saw the crash, and was able to notify CHP and fire authorities within minutes, most likely saved lives," said CHP chief Art Acevedo.
Times staff writer Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this report.