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I-5 Is Reopened After Pileup That Killed 17 : Traffic: Workers battle winds and sand clouds to clear highway of 104 vehicles that crashed in dust storm.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As the death toll in the chain-reaction crash on Interstate 5 reached 17, authorities battled biting winds and blinding sand clouds Saturday to clear piled-up vehicles and managed to reopen the main artery linking Northern and Southern California in time for today’s post-holiday rush toward home.

Dozens of wrecked cars and trucks--some bunched in orderly rows after crashing, others melted and unrecognizable after a terrible fire--still littered the four-lane freeway on Saturday morning after the harrowing series of collisions involving 104 vehicles that began under a cloak of dust on Friday.

Several people working at the scene compared the mile-long column of wrecked vehicles and smoldering metal to the remains of Iraqi armored vehicles destroyed by American warplanes as they tried to drive out of Kuwait earlier this year.

Caltrans crews opened both directions of the busy freeway through the San Joaquin Valley just after 7 p.m. Saturday, after workers finished removing the last of the vehicle hulks and temporarily patching the many cracks, scrapes and gouges left in the pavement. Signs were posted urging drivers to travel with caution over the patched roadway.

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“I’ve never seen a car accident in California that comes close to being this bad,” Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, who toured the crash scene with state Transportation Secretary Carl Covitz, said earlier Saturday. “I’ve never seen such a mess of twisted trucks and cars.”

The pileup was not the worst traffic wreck in California history--29 children died in 1976 when a school bus plunged off a freeway in Martinez, and accidents involving 100 or more vehicles have occurred in ground fog in the San Joaquin Valley--but this was the deadliest highway crash involving blowing dust, California Highway Patrol officials said.

Road-clearing crews received a scare as darkness fell Saturday when they discovered scores of industrial-sized, potentially explosive oxygen tanks mixed in a shipment of baby-food jars in a charred tractor-trailer. Work stopped until they determined the tanks were empty.

In several Fresno County hospitals, meanwhile, crash victims battled for their lives; three lost the fight Saturday, joining 14 fatalities on the day of the accident.

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McCarthy and Covitz agreed with CHP officials who blamed the accident on drivers being ambushed by a “freak” dust storm of unprecedented density.

“It was a tragic situation and could not be avoided,” Covitz said.

CHP officials, who spent most of Saturday marking wrecks and diagramming where they came to rest, said it may be six months before an accident investigation team can piece together a chronology of what happened.

“We can look for a cause,” said Deputy Chief John Anderson, commander of the CHP’s central division, which patrols from Modesto to Bakersfield, “but it’s pretty apparent here it was unsafe speed for the conditions, although innocently done.”

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Even if motorists were not speeding, he said, the dust storm came up so fast that drivers didn’t have time to react and adjust to it.

That jibes with the tales being swapped by survivors Saturday over sweet rolls and coffee in the diner of a nearby motel.

Anita Viotto, 61, said she was driving from Sacramento to her home in San Luis Obispo with her son-in-law, when “all of a sudden . . . you couldn’t see anything.”

Her son-in-law, Chuck Baker, 62, said that by the time he saw the red taillights of the big rig in front of him he barely had enough time to veer his minivan onto the shoulder and avoid being compressed accordion-style by the stream of cars behind.

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“It was like seeing a wall of sand. I couldn’t even see the front of my car,” said Jaime Peckham, 41, who was in the process of moving from Baltimore to San Francisco when fate--and a Toyota pickup--struck.

Peckham said she was in the slow lane and braked as soon as the dust cloud enveloped the road, stopping a foot short of the car in front of her. She remembered feeling relieved, “and then I looked in the rear-view mirror and I saw the headlights coming. And I said, ‘Oh, God! Please don’t hit me!’ And then, pow!”

Across the table, the man who ran into her, DeBee Corley, 51, of San Jose, said he was trying to decelerate gradually to avoid causing a chain-reaction, but misjudged slightly and hit Peckham’s station wagon at 15 m.p.h. He said he was not rear-ended, but the car behind him was.

Firefighters dispatched to the scene said rescue efforts were badly hampered by the storm, which they said was beyond description.

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Doug Hicks, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry’s Mid-Valley Fire District, said he had to navigate to the crash site by opening his door, sticking his head out and following the yellow stripe on the pavement.

“That was the only way I could see anything,” Hicks said.

A fire truck, meanwhile, was itself rear-ended on its way to the crash and firefighters could not pry open its back doors to get to a set of “jaws of life,” which were needed to free people trapped in wrecked cars. An ambulance inching its way to injured drivers collided with another vehicle on the way. It did not cause any injuries.

Once on the scene, officials said, it took them considerable time to penetrate the fog of confusion, as well as the dense dust, and discover that the collision involved more than 100 vehicles littered over nearly a mile on both sides of the road.

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The first rescuers arrived within a half-hour of the 2:30 p.m. crash, even though it was 20 miles north of Coalinga, the closest town of any size.

In the interim, the CHP’s Anderson said, some of the injured were attended by a doctor and two Northern California firefighters who happened to be driving down the freeway at the time. Anderson said he did not know who the doctor or firefighters were.

When help arrived in strength, some firefighters immediately set out to extinguish a fire that was burning through the largest single clump of vehicles, about 19 cars and two big rigs, in the southbound lanes. That fire burned so hot that it reduced cars to unrecognizable lumps and left rivulets of coagulated aluminum pooled in the dirt median.

Other firefighters and Highway Patrol officers went to other clumps of smashed vehicles, helping some survivors pull others out through the windows of their mangled cars.

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Away from the fire, especially on the northbound lanes about a mile away, the white noise of rushing wind blocked out all other sounds and the gray-brown cloak of blowing sand obliterated most sights.

“It was eerie,” Peckham said. “It was like being in a science-fiction movie.”

The blowing sand scratched the eyes and buffed any exposed skin of rescue workers.

“It was like being sandblasted,” said David Eppler, owner of Eppler Towing of Firebaugh, which had all 10 of its trucks working the scene until 1 a.m. Saturday. They returned at 9 a.m. and worked until dark.

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When his drivers--and most other workers--returned Saturday morning, they wore goggles and face masks to protect themselves from the whirling sands.

Anderson said all of his firefighters needed to have their eyes flushed at the end of the day, despite wearing goggles.

He said he did not think any citations or charges would be filed because of the accident. The only person who might have been charged with a crime, the driver of one tractor-trailer rig that plowed into a cluster of cars that exploded in flame, died in the crash.

Witnesses told the CHP that another big rig and several cars already had collided and come to a rest, but the suspect truck did not stop or even slow down as it approached the wreckage. Investigators were not immediately sure if that second truck started the fire.

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Chandler reported from Coalinga, Stein from Los Angeles.

I-5 Pileup Victims

Here are the names of 15 of the 17 people killed in the pileup on Interstate 5 near Coalinga. Two unidentified victims were “burned beyond recognition,” the Fresno County coroner’s office said. All were California residents.

* Randal L. Marx, 37, of Rancho Cucamonga.

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* Gabor Lee Smith, 32, of Rosamond.

* Christopher Lee Smith, 3, of Rosamond.

* Micha Carlton Smith, 1, of Rosamond.

* Lucille Bennett, 67, of Shingle Springs.

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* Leslie Carnahan, no age available, of San Carlos.

* Willard Rathbun, 68, of San Leandro.

* Jean Rathbun, 69, of San Leandro.

* Helen Miltimore, 70, of San Lorenzo.

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* Gilbert Cunha, no age available, of Stockton.

* Joseph Andrews, 30, of Los Angeles.

* Pedro Nocon, 39, of Lakewood.

* Amparao Nocon, 37, of Lakewood.

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* Jillann Nocon, 8, of Lakewood.

* Glorian Nocon, 5, of Lakewood.

SOURCE: Associated Press


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