Dodging Big Rigs: Life on the Downgrade

Times Staff Writer

Tom Perry was making small talk with a customer at his gas station garage one morning not long ago when he heard what he described later as “that ungodly thump.” He yelled a warning to the customer and started to run.

“You hear that sound and you haul ass hoping that you’re hauling ass in the right direction,” Perry recalled.

Co-owner Chuck Matulik, who was in the restroom at the time, also recognized the sound and “hugged the walls for dear life.”


Seconds later, a semi-trailer truck plowed through the sheet-metal wall of the garage and smashed into two cars under repair, one of which was hurled outside in the same direction that Perry was running. Miraculously, the truck driver received only facial cuts and his passenger complained of pain in her lower back. The attendants were frightened but unscathed.

The next day, a semi-trailer loaded with lumber apparently lost its brakes, roared off the highway and overturned a few feet away from the station. That driver also survived.

Dodging wayward trucks is almost routine at the Exxon station at the junction of Interstate 15 and California 138.

Perry and Matulik figure that at least 20 trucks in the last six years have careened off the interstate and roared toward the station, which lies at the bottom of a steep five-mile grade and at the foot of an off-ramp that acts like a ski jump for vehicles with bad brakes. So far, however, the station has been broadsided only twice.

The tell-tale “thump” that serves as the warning to Perry and Matulik is the sound of truck tires striking an asphalt curb above an embankment a few yards behind the gas station.

“The funny thing is that they come in groups of threes. We’re due for another,” said Perry, 40, of Victorville. “I’m keeping the door of my office propped open in case I have to get the hell out of here fast.”


“I look up at anything that goes ‘barooom!’ ” added Matulik, 45, of Apple Valley, standing beside the twisted girders and dangling wires framing a gaping hole where the northern wall of the garage once stood. “You definitely get paranoid.”

The men recite an almost comical litany of wrecks and near misses over the years involving trucks hauling everything from grain and steel to uncured cowhides and canned hams.

“Whew! I mean to tell you those cowhides really stunk,” said Matulik, a short and wiry fast-talking man with a heavy Southern accent.

“But those hams--now that was a big stink in more ways than one,” added Perry, a tall and beefy man with a low voice. “Everybody went home with hams. Later on, the company wanted their hams back.”

“We respond to at least three or four accidents a year there,” California Highway Patrol Officer Kevin Haney confirmed.

“It’s trucks coming down the pass too fast and then getting their brakes hot while trying to slow down to stop at a scale facility just below the gas station on the interstate,” Haney said. “They lose their brakes and try to take that off-ramp.”


Haney said there are plans to remedy the problem.

The scale will be moved to the top of the grade within the next five years, he said. CHP authorities and California Department of Transportation officials are discussing the possibility of building an “escape ramp” above the accident-plagued off-ramp and of reducing the speed limit for trucks from 55 to 45 m.p.h. on the downgrade.

“Of course, nothing happens overnight,” Haney said. “You have to go through the proper channels, and that takes time.”

“We’ve heard it all before,” Perry said. “Even if they did all those things, those trucks are still going to lose their brakes.”

18 Steel Posts

Long before the most recent accident, Perry and Matulik installed 18 steel posts in concrete along the rear wall of the station as reinforcement. Three of the heavy posts snapped like match sticks in the latest wreck.

Caltrans erected a sign at the end of the off-ramp with two arrows pointing in opposite directions to indicate that drivers must turn right or left.

“You mean to tell me that little sign is going to stop a truck?” Matulik asked rhetorically. “Picture this: You lost your brakes at the top of the grade, you’ve got 30,000 pounds on the flatbed and you’re doing 80 m.p.h. . . . You come off that off-ramp and see a gas station. . . . You’re only thinking one thing, man: Explosion.”


Have they considered selling the station and moving?

“No way. This is our livelihood,” said Perry. “Hey, dynamite haulers haul dynamite every day, right?”