2 Drivers Live to Tell About It : Plunge Off Cliffs Is One Too Many

Times Staff Writer

It was well past midnight when Bill Weller pulled into the turnout near Marineland, hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean. He hit the brakes, but the car he thought of as "a favorite toy" crashed through the fence and kept going, while Weller sat and thought, "This is going to be a long fall."

Two weeks later and a few miles away, Jon Liuzzi was heading home at midday to retrieve some papers, when a stereo speaker dropped off his dashboard. Liuzzi bent down to grab the speaker, the car went over the side, and Liuzzi was filled with a "feeling of falling and falling."

Neither Weller nor Liuzzi remembers his accident from start to finish; both lost consciousness before hitting bottom. But more surprising is the fact that either man is alive to remember anything at all.

"I guess it just wasn't his time," said Palos Verdes Estates Detective Tom Vanderpool, who investigated Liuzzi's Dec. 17 accident.

Also surprising to Vanderpool and to Sheriff Deputy Dan Calhoun, who is based in the substation in Lomita and who investigates traffic accidents on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, was that neither Weller nor Liuzzi had been drinking and neither man was trying to kill himself.

"Very seldom do you have (an accident) where a car just drives off" the Palos Verdes cliffs, Calhoun said.

A Favorite Spot

Weller, a 30-year-old research assistant at Hughes Aircraft Co., said the turnout on Palos Verdes Drive South in Rancho Palos Verdes near Marineland is one of his favorite spots, either as the start of a jaunt down the hill to the water or as a site to watch the way the light plays on the water and the sky merges with the Pacific far out to sea.

On the morning of Dec. 3, he said, he headed from his Hawthorne home to the Peninsula for a post-midnight drive when he had trouble sleeping. He said he was "going kind of fast" as he approached the turnout, and "it was a last-minute decision to turn in there." As he did, "the car didn't stop; that was the problem."

"I can't say I was really panicked," Weller remembered. "I didn't really have time to be afraid. I saw the fence coming up, and it was stark and real. . . . The most disconcerting feeling was seeing it was a split rail fence and knowing it wasn't going to stop me."

Weller said that he remembered once watching people push a derelict car off a Peninsula cliff--police say such activity is a favorite Peninsula sport--and waiting four or five seconds to hear the noise of the car hitting land. Thus, as the 1973 Camaro on which he had done so much engine work went over the side, Weller said he had a "sinking feeling, thinking, 'Oh, God, this is going to be a long fall.' "

Weller said he does not remember much after that. He said the car apparently hit an embankment below the fence and about 30 feet out from it, turned over twice and slid backward, coming to rest about 150 feet down the cliff.

"When I came to, it was to the sound of a voice coming down the hill," Weller said. The voice belonged to Jeff Gardner of Torrance, who had been parked with his girlfriend near the turnout and who called paramedics and then went down the hill to comfort Weller.

The paramedics rappelled down the cliff, "carried me up the hill on a stretcher and I got a helicopter ride to the hospital." After only five days in the hospital for treatment of cuts and bruises, Weller said, he was discharged.

Two weeks later and several miles to the northwest, Liuzzi, a 23-year-old Cal State Long Beach psychology major, went over the side near Bluff Cove in Palos Verdes Estates, tumbling end over end to the ground 300 feet below.

Liuzzi said he was heading home to get a folder containing school assignments when a stereo speaker fell from his dashboard and he leaned down to pick it up.

"All of a sudden I felt myself going over," he said. "It was that quick. I fell about 100 feet and I felt that 100-foot drop. I hit a bolder or something" and lost consciousness.

As he was headed for midair, Liuzzi said, "It was just a shock. I couldn't believe it was happening. I thought, 'Oh my God, not now,' because I had so much to do, school finals and other things."

As he went down, there was "just that feeling of falling and falling. It was something not many people could understand. Unfortunately, it happened to me, and it was so scary. . . . I felt myself going down and dropping. . . . I thought I was going to die. I thought death was there."

What turned out to be there for Liuzzi was weeks of hospitalization.

Interviewed last week at Torrance Memorial Hospital, where he has had hip surgery and an operation on his chin, Liuzzi said the need for physical therapy to repair the damage done by the accident will force him to miss a semester of college.

Still, Liuzzi counts himself lucky. His Chevrolet Caprice wound up on its roof, the driver's side caved in, Liuzzi flattened against the passenger's side. "If I was wearing my seat belt, I would have died," he said. (Weller said he was wearing his seat belt and credits it with saving him from more serious injury.)

A surfer who saw Liuzzi's accident "called for help, covered me up with a beach towel, held my hand and said, 'You're going to be OK.' " Liuzzi said that he hopes to find the surfer some day and thank him.

The spot where Liuzzi, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident, went over the cliff is the same place where another motorist--driving in the opposite direction--soared off the road three years ago in an accident well-remembered by Palos Verdes Estates Police Sgt. Mike Tracy.

Routine Check

Tracy said he was on a quiet midweek patrol at 3 a.m. when he pulled up behind a car parked on Paseo del Mar to check whether the automobile had been abandoned. As he got out, he saw someone sit up in the car, turn around and look at the sergeant and then start the engine and leave.

"I jumped back in the police car, turned the (red) lights on and went after him," Tracy said. "At that, he really took off. Then at Palos Verdes Drive West, he made a sharp left turn and drove over the cliff. It freaked me out. I thought, 'Oh, my God.' "

The sergeant said that when police found the Volkswagen convertible at the bottom of the hill, it "looked like a crushed beer can." But the driver was gone.

He said police called in two helicopters from the Sheriff's Department, set up a command post with flood lights and searched unsuccessfully through the night for the driver.

By morning, the driver's family had joined spectators watching police hunt for the missing motorist, Tracy said. "The next thing I know, this kid's aunt and grandmother come driving by, they say, 'We have him; we're taking him to the hospital.' I had to jump in the police car and chase them a couple of miles to get them to pull over."

The sergeant summoned paramedics, who took the youth to the hospital. He said that when a detective questioned the driver in the hospital the next day, "the kid tells him he didn't know why he did it, he was just frightened and doesn't know why he drove off the cliff."

Tracy said a driver who gets thrown from a car plunging down the hill can get tossed into the chaparral and manzanita that form a dense growth on the hillsides. "Sometimes that will slow them down," he said. "It can act like a pillow."

Tracy's colleague, Detective Vanderpool, said that he does not keep statistics on how many people jump or drive over the cliffs of Palos Verdes Estates, but believes the number is going down. Most who do go over the side are bent on suicide, he said.

Not long before Liuzzi's accident, Vanderpool said, a woman drove over the cliff and claimed it was an accident. But a week later she committed suicide with a pistol in a South Bay shopping center, Vanderpool said.

In 1983, one man drove over the cliffs twice, in two different cars, the detective said. "He really wanted to do it right."

Last September, a motorcyclist drove his chopper off the road and into the air in a successful attempt to take his life, Vanderpool said.

At the Lomita substation, Calhoun said the Sheriff's Department does not have statistics on how many people drive over the cliffs on those sections of the Peninsula that are the department's responsibility. But he said that new traffic barriers on the road near Marineland have cut down the number of accidents.

One problem he said, is the perennial legend that the ghost of a lady whose lover died in a shipwreck untold years ago prowls the Point Vicente Lighthouse. Teen-agers driving to the lighthouse to look for the ghost occasionally drive off the road and down the side of the hill, Calhoun said.

The deputy said that in the seven years he has been with the traffic unit at the Lomita substation, "we've had a lot of cars that are pushed off the cliffs . . . kids playing pranks want to see if (the cars) will blow up like in the movies, I guess." They don't.

The major cause of accidents, Calhoun said, is alcohol. He said that two or three years ago two men who were later determined to have been drinking were in a truck in a parking area near Marineland "doing doughnuts," spinning their wheels and driving around in circles, when "they just lost their bearings" and plunged to their deaths below.

Calhoun said that accidents like those suffered by Liuzzi and Weller rank well behind alcohol-related incidents and suicide attempts in the tally of cars going down the Palos Verdes cliffs.

Both Liuzzi and Weller said they are thankful to have survived, and both apparently have faith in the cars they were driving. Weller said he has already replaced his 1973 Chevrolet Camaro with a 1978 Camaro, and Liuzzi said he hopes to get another Caprice as soon as he is ready to drive again.

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