Cords of firewood that spilled from a flatbed truck aggravated the fiery crash that killed five motorcyclists participating in an annual Labor Day weekend trip in the Sierra Nevada, the California Highway Patrol said Sunday.
Authorities said the load spilled after the driver of the truck crossed into an oncoming lane and into the path of dozens of bikers.
The driver, his passenger and a sixth motorcyclist were seriously injured in the crash on the so-called Mormon Emigrant Trail, a mountain road about five miles south of Sly Park in El Dorado County.
The back roads of the Sierra Nevada forest land are the scene of an annual trek that attracts hundreds of cycling enthusiasts from around the West.
Friends said the victims in Saturday's accident had been biking to the area for 10 years and were en route to a campsite in the Hope Valley.
Over the first 36 hours of the Labor Day weekend, 40 traffic fatalities were reported in California, including a highway patrolman who burned to death in San Francisco when his car was rear-ended by a pickup truck.
Officer Hugo Olazar, 35, died inside the patrol car, which was parked on the shoulder of the freeway late Saturday night so he could investigate a previous collision in which no one was injured.
The driver of the pickup, Jorge Perez of Daly City, was arrested on suspicion of felony driving under the influence of alcohol and vehicular manslaughter. Perez was in stable condition at San Francisco General Hospital.
In the Sierra Nevada incident, investigators were still trying to determine whether the motorcyclists were hit by the wood or crashed into it, and at what point the bikes and truck collided.
"Apparently, for some unknown reason, (the driver) crossed over the line and lost control, causing (a panel) that held the wood to break," CHP spokeswoman Mary Ann Biggs said. "Wood went all over the roadway. The cycles went down (and) then there was a fire at the scene."
The driver of the truck was identified as Daniel DeWater, 24, of Shingle Springs. He was listed in serious condition at the University Medical Center in Sacramento. His passenger, Wanda Robertson, 32, was in very critical condition with burns over 90% of her body, a spokeswoman said.
No charges have been filed in the accident, officials said Sunday.
The sixth cyclist was Fritz-Howard Clapp, 43, a Sacramento attorney. He was in critical condition with burns over 60% of his body, the hospital said.
Killed were Douglas J. Wall, 24, of Reno; Jeffrey H. Sund, 32, El Dorado; Debbie M. Sund, 32, El Dorado; Jeffrey A. Pearl, 41, Foster City, and James D. Carter, 35, Sacramento, authorities said.
One Remains Hospitalized
Two other people were treated at the Marshall Hospital in Placerville; one remained hospitalized Sunday for observation and the other was released.
Witnesses described a crash scene in which bodies were strewn along the two-lane highway and motorcycles lay crushed underneath the truck. The accident closed the road as rescuers worked to douse the fire and recover victims.
Two ambulances, two helicopters, a local fire department, the Forest Service and CHP vehicles rushed to the scene, about five miles east of Jenkinson Reservoir south of U.S. 50.
"There were just victims scattered up and down the road," John Walshaw, chief of the Pollock Pines-Camino Fire Protection District, told local reporters.
Survivors stood by, Walshaw said. "They were hugging and crying."