Four people were killed Monday in a head-on collision between a passenger car and a big rig about 19 miles north of Desert Center in Riverside County, authorities said.
Three people died at the scene and a fourth was pronounced dead at the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, where he was airlifted after being extricated from the car, said a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol's Indio office.
She said the accident, which occurred on the two-lane Highway 177 just east of Joshua Tree National Park, was reported at 3:11 p.m. Six CHP officers were deployed to the scene along with 11 firefighters from the Riverside County Fire Department and Cal Fire/Riverside.
Further information on the identities of the victims or circumstances of the accident was not available, she said. She added that the big rig spilled some kind of hazardous material, but no details were available on whether it was diesel fuel or another substance.
An eyewitness said he saw the southbound passenger car cross the center line and move into the northbound lane, apparently to pass traffic, and hit the big rig head on.
Brian Mumey, an Oregon resident traveling through California on vacation, said the collision sent clouds of dust and debris flying into the air and as far as 100 yards along the stretch of desert road. The big rig's fuel tank separated, spilling diesel fuel all over the roadside, he said.
"It looked like an improvised explosive device, with the amount of carnage and debris that flew through the air," said Mumey, a retired U.S. Army infantryman who said he survived an IED hit during multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mumey said he treated the driver, who was the only one of four occupants still alive, by applying pressure on a severe head wound. The impact of the crash had ripped off the car roof and crumpled it like an accordion, he said.
He said the flow of traffic was moving about 60 mph, with many pickups and RVs pulling boats as they returned from the Memorial Day weekend. He said several cars attempted to pass the procession, darting in and out of traffic — including the driver involved in the collision, who had passed Mumey about five minutes earlier.
"There were all kinds of people passing," Mumey said. "I said, 'This is crazy. Somebody's going to get killed.'
"This was just tragic — one of those things that didn't have to happen."
11:30 p.m.: This article was updated with the death of a fourth person and details about the crash from an eyewitness.