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14 Killed, 114 Hurt in I-5 Pileups : Traffic: More than 100 vehicles collide in dust storm north of Coalinga. Victims describe ‘all kinds of terrible scenes--trucks on fire, cars on fire, bodies in the road.’

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A sudden, blinding dust storm trapped hundreds of holiday motorists on Interstate 5 in the San Joaquin Valley on Friday, leaving at least 14 people dead and 114 injured in a series of chain-reaction accidents, the California Highway Patrol said.

CHP officials said at least 93 cars and 11 big-rig trucks slammed into one another at 2:30 p.m. along a 1 1/2-mile stretch of the highway approximately 45 miles north of Coalinga.

Witnesses and CHP officers described an eerie scene in the moments after the pileup, with burning cars, trailers and smashed trucks scattered along the roadway. Survivors climbed from their cars, bloodied and covered with sand.

“It looked like war, and I’ve been in the war,” said Richard Brucker, 68, who was on his way home to Danville with his wife Marjorie after spending Thanksgiving in Palm Springs. “We passed all kinds of terrible scenes--trucks on fire, cars on fire, bodies in the road.”

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Brucker said that almost immediately after his car stopped, it was struck three times by cars and a pickup truck. He looked up to see a big-rig semi headed for him and other stalled cars. At the last moment, the trucker veered off into a ditch, wrecking his vehicle but avoiding the cars in his path, he said.

“I’ve got to find out who he is,” Brucker said. “We’d be dead.”

The string of collisions began when the dust storm cut visibility to near zero, CHP Sgt. Ted Eichman said. There were at least four separate multiple-car pileups, one involving about 30 vehicles, he said.

“Some of these big rigs came in at 50 miles per hour in zero visibility and dust,” Eichman said. “We’ve preached for years to slow down in the dust and fog. It’s pretty obvious some of these people out here didn’t do that.”

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Survivors described several thick clouds of dust sweeping across the highway.

“Everything was blacked out,” said Cliff Emerson, 39, who was driving to San Luis Obispo with his wife Debbie and their children after spending Thanksgiving with relatives in Modesto when they ran into the first dust cloud.

Emerson decreased his speed, got through one wall of dust, then encountered a second one. At that moment he saw a tractor trailer ahead of him and frantically tried to brake.

“I began to scream, ‘Jesus!’ ” he said. “I felt we were all going to die.”

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His car slammed into the rear left tires of the 18-wheeler. Next to him, another truck slammed into the right tires, killing the driver. Seconds later, Emerson said, car after car crashed into the rear of vehicle. Soon, Emerson’s car, with his wife and two children seated in the back, was crushed.

The Emersons’ son, Christopher, 8, was unconscious. Frantically, the couple and their daughter crawled out a window of the car, the only escape route. They pulled Christopher out and he regained consciousness five minutes later. The entire family escaped with relatively minor injuries.

Walking away, the Emersons and other survivors saw motorists crushed in their cars. Passing a tangle of six cars engulfed in flames, Emerson spotted a man in a stupor. He had escaped from the flames but kept muttering that he needed to retrieve his briefcase.

“I led him back to the (emergency medical workers),” Emerson said.

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Shortly after the collisions north of the Kamm Avenue exit, every available emergency vehicle in Coalinga and Los Banos was summoned to the scene said CHP spokeswoman Mary Kerr. Emergency crews from Merced and Hanford also were called.

Emergency personnel spent hours sifting through flattened and charred vehicles searching for victims. Two bodies were found six hours after the accidents, Eichman said.

After the pileups, the CHP closed 150 miles of the heavily traveled roadway from the California 46 junction near Bakersfield north to Los Banos because of 40-m.p.h. winds and zero visibility from the blowing dust, according to the CHP. The highway was to remain closed overnight.

Five years of drought apparently contributed to the dust storm as the high winds blew across rain-starved farm fields, officials said. Fields on both side of the freeway had no crops to hold down the dust and dirt.

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“There are freshly plowed fields out there and the wind is blowing up the dust and the dirt to zero visibility,” said Kerr.

Ten hospitals in the Fresno area braced for the arrival of scores of patients. County officials established a command center at the Valley Medical Center in Fresno. Seventy people were bused to a Fresno shelter.

Many survivors gathered at hospitals, recounting the terror of those few moments along the highway. They said the danger was not over even after they had escaped from their wrecked cars. Many had to scramble to the side of the road in desperate efforts to avoid being hit by oncoming vehicles.

“We were running to get away from the freeway,” Rick Schacherbauer, 39, of Davis said. “You couldn’t see things. You could only hear things.”

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Some survivors gathered at a Chevron service station 10 miles away. Stunned and quivering, they arrived as pale as ghosts--their hair, faces and clothes covered in dust, said Maria Martinez, a cashier at the station.

“This one man, he was pretty shook up,” she said. “He couldn’t even talk, that’s how shook up he was. He was trying to make words come out. He couldn’t do it.”

Dozens of crumpled cars were towed from the scene of the accident and dumped at the Chevron station and others in the area.

One tow truck pulled Brucker’s crushed vehicle to the Apricot Inn in Firebaugh, where the Brucker family and dozens of other shaken victims sought refuge. Brucker said he was on his knees “thanking my maker” for being alive. A few martinis at the inn’s bar were helping recovery, too, he said.

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Most of the wrecked vehicles remained on the roadway well into the evening, awaiting a full CHP investigation to begin this morning. CHP officials hoped to reopen the highway about noon.

At one spot along the interstate, a driver sat in the cab of his smashed big rig truck, planning to stay until the truck could be towed in the morning.

Nearby, eight cars, two trucks and two recreational vehicles were crumpled in a massive heap, surrounded by countless shards of glass and scattered car parts.

Weather has a long history of making highways in the Central Valley treacherous. High winds, dust storms and, especially, tule fog have caused dozens of deadly accidents over the years.

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Seven people were killed and 47 injured in three chain-reaction wrecks on I-5 within two days in December, 1978. One occurred south of Kettleman City and the others near Sacramento. The fog was blamed for all three.

Fog also was cited as the cause of 48 crashes on Central Valley roadways that claimed eight lives in 1988. On one December day in 1989, fog was a factor in a 69-vehicle pileup near Tracy, the crash of 14 cars near Manteca and 14 accidents involving 55 cars and trucks.

Chandler reported from Coalinga and Harris from Fresno. Times staff writers Hector Tobar and Tracy Wilkinson reported from Los Angeles.


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