At least 42 vehicles, including six big-rig trucks, piled up in a series of accidents on fog-shrouded Interstate 215 in southern Riverside County early Monday, injuring at least 19 people and closing the road in both directions for four hours, officials said.
A separate accident also attributed to the fog resulted in one fatality.
The collisions began about 6:30 a.m. on the freeway near Scott Road between Temecula and Sun City, 70 miles east of Los Angeles, according to California Highway Patrol Capt. Ralph Limon.
"The fog was pretty bad," Limon said. "At times visibility was less than 10 feet and people just kept running into each other."
Interstate 215 is a major artery from San Diego to Riverside. The flat section of freeway runs through farmland interspersed with new tract home developments.
Tina Vawser, 41, of Sun City, said she was on her way to work in Riverside when the hazy weather seemed to be breaking. "All of a sudden the fog dropped down like a curtain. . . . There was zero visibility and I slammed on my brakes." Vawser said she rear-ended the car in front of her and when both drivers stopped and got out of their cars we "could hear other crashes in the fog."
Ernie Reynoso, 32, of Temecula, also stopped his car in the dense fog when another car hit his Toyota pickup from behind. That started a chain reaction behind him. "In the fog I could hear brakes squealing and crunch, crunch, crunch," Reynoso said.
Tim Sanders, a CHP officer called to the scene, said "considering how many cars were involved, I am surprised that more people were not hurt." Sanders said that in addition to the poor visibility, many of those involved in accidents were "just driving too fast."
The CHP said there were at least 12 separate accidents that formed two extended pileups--one each in the northbound and southbound lanes.
"Some guy would stop, get out of his car, and another one would run into the back of that mess. We count them as two separate accidents," CHP Officer Jim Bill Wallin said.
Hours after the tangled trail of vehicles was cleared, CHP officers said they were still unsure exactly how it all got started.
CHP Sgt. Jim Waterbury said the initial accident was believed to have occurred in a northbound lane of 215 between Scott Road and Newport Road. The last of the accidents occurred about 7:30 a.m. The highway was closed until 10:45 while Caltrans crews swept mounds of glass and metal parts from the road.
"It's common to have fog here," Limon said. "What is unusual is the failure of people to respond to it. . . . What happened out there was totally uncalled for. There was total disregard (for the conditions). People were driving like they were crazy."
Limon said Murrieta Fire Capt. Joe Whisenand was traveling to the scene at a slow speed in an emergency vehicle with its overhead lights flashing when he was passed on the right by a red sports car traveling an estimated 70 m.p.h. He later found the car stacked in a pileup, Limon said.
Caltrans, the CHP and the Riverside County Fire Department responded to the accidents in addition to four heavy tow trucks, 15 regular tow trucks and six ambulances, which made repeated trips to the accident scene to pick up victims, according to Capt. Janet Stern of the Riverside County Fire Department.
Three victims with chest injuries were being held in the intensive care unit at Riverside General Hospital in critical but stable condition, a spokesman said. Two others were admitted to Inland Valley Regional Hospital in Rancho California.
The foggy conditions led to accidents on several other roads in the area.
A victim in one of two fog-related collisions on the Romona Expressway was pronounced dead on arrival at Christian Hospital and Medical Center in Perris, according to Administrator Wendy Becker. Killed was Thurman Poss, 54, of San Jacinto, according to the Riverside County coroner's office.
Louis Sahagun reported from Temecula and Frederick M. Muir from Los Angeles.