Thousands of rush-hour motorists were stuck in a huge traffic jam Tuesday when a section of the Ventura Freeway was shut down for three hours while a Ventura man clung to the Seaward Avenue overpass threatening to jump.
Northbound traffic was backed up through Oxnard and southbound lanes were clogged north of California 33 until Kevin Olejniczak climbed off a freeway sign about 6 p.m. and was taken into police custody. Police said Olejniczak, 29, had been despondent over a recent breakup with his girlfriend.
During the standoff, drivers were diverted off the freeway in Ventura, snarling the city's Main Street, Telephone Road and Victoria Avenue. The interchanges with the Santa Paula Freeway and California 33 to Ojai were also jammed.
CHP Officer Bradley Prows, who spent two hours directing traffic at Main Street and the Ventura Freeway, said the jumper's timing and location created a "worst-case scenario in terms of traffic concerns."
"The city streets just were not engineered to handle the volume we had," he said. "Tempers were flying, cars were overheating--there's only so much you could do."
Ventura Police Capt. Randy Adams said simply: "The city's a mess."
A dozen Ventura police officers and half a dozen CHP officers were stationed at intersections and off-ramps to direct cars. After nearly two hours, the southbound lanes were reopened to ease the backup and because it did not appear the man would jump into those lanes, CHP Officer Sherie Latimer said.
While police concentrated on coaxing the man off the sign and directing traffic, hundreds of spectators gathered on both sides of the freeway at Seaward Avenue. Curious residents of Ventura's Pierpont neighborhood were joined by teen-agers on skateboards and angry drivers craning to see what had caused the delay.
Cheryl Frias, 33, said she missed a job interview in Ventura while sitting on the freeway for more than an hour. "I don't know what's taking them so long to apprehend the guy," she said.
Some who were gathered on the sidewalk showed little sympathy for the man, yelling: "Jump! Jump!"
"They ought to put a big balloon beneath the bridge, knock him off and do whatever they have to do with him," said Lou Fajardo, 25, who lives in Pierpont and was standing in a suit and tie at the corner of Seaward Avenue and Harbor Boulevard.
"I'm from Chicago and I'm used to rush-hour traffic, but this is ridiculous," he said. "In Chicago, they would never put up with this."
One woman, Darlene Bartholomew, 24, of Sacramento decided to videotape the scene after inching her way off the freeway. Bartholomew said she and a friend were returning from a vacation in Baja.
"We figured the guy took up some of our time and our gas money so we needed to at least come over and pay our tributes," she said.
Adams said the man agreed to climb down from the sign after officers told him he could talk with his ex-girlfriend on a cellular phone and because he saw rescuers positioning themselves below him.
Officers then grabbed the man and placed him in handcuffs. He was taken to a county mental health facility where he will be held for three days and evaluated for further treatment, Adams said.
While he stood on the sign, the man told police he had threatened Monday to jump from the roof of the Holiday Inn. But no one reported seeing him there and police were not summoned.
"So today he thought he could get better attention here," Adams said. "He commented several times about the fact that he could bring the city to a standstill."