Times Staff Writer

Heather Fay, blond and outgoing, loves company. Back-to-back visitors pack the small house near Pasadena that she shares with her equally outgoing boyfriend, Rob Phillips.

Her mom recently stayed a month. In the time it took to wash the sheets and towels, two girlfriends flew out from her hometown in Connecticut.

Finally, “things are getting back to normal,” she says, the night before her house guests are scheduled to leave.


The alarm blares at 4:30 a.m., allowing plenty of time to drive to the Long Beach Airport for an early-morning bargain flight.

It is Sunday, Nov. 3, a day that will be asterisked in the record books when 216 cars, SUVs, pick-ups and big rigs collide on a foggy stretch of the 710 in the biggest freeway accident in the history of Southern California. The chain reaction rips off fenders, crunches trunks, twists hoods, shatters windows. Two massive knots, one involving 114 vehicles, the other 53, block the Del Amo exit and about five miles of the southbound lanes near the 405. A smaller tangle of nine cars strangles the northbound lanes.

Amazingly, no one dies.

But in the crumpled, bent crush of car after car after truck after car, more than 100 are injured, among them Phillips, Fay and her two friends. That’s their little black Honda, spun sideways at the center of the largest knot of cars, in the AP photograph that made front pages across the country. For them, and many others in the middle of it all, the accident hasn’t stopped.

It is before sunrise.

Phillips, the only guy in the house, is the last out of bed, the last in the car. He climbs behind the wheel of Fay’s ’94 Honda Civic. She’s beside him, her friends behind them. They buckle up. She fastens a seat belt recently repaired by her mother after the dog chewed through it.

As they drive along the 710, a wall of fog envelops them. Fay, who admits she’s “a terrible back-seat driver,” cautions, “Brake lights, Rob.”

Ten cars, or is it 20, brake in front of them. He brakes, too. The Honda keeps going. In the thick, wet fog, it feels as if he is driving on ice.


Spinning sideways, sliding, sliding, sliding, sliding, she says, “for what seems like forever.”


They’re hit. On the driver’s side? Yes? No? On the passenger’s side?


They’re hit again. How many times? Who knows.

At 6:40, the California Highway Patrol rolls.

The Long Beach Fire Department also responds.

Firefighter Jan Andriese is already on the scene, in his green Toyota pick-up near the beginning of the accident, not very far from the Honda and the cars in front and back of it. He is not in uniform yet because he’s heading to work at Fire Station 1 in Long Beach.

When fog snuffs out most visibility and brake lights suddenly get brighter, he veers left and hits his brakes. He braces for impact.

No one touches him.

He hears “that distinct sound of cars sliding on the payment.” He sees “about 10 people running.” Some jump the median and rush onto the northbound lanes of the 710, “causing cars to spin out of control.” Nine cars are rear-ending or getting rear-ended and swerving to get out of the way of the big rig busting through the divider.

Andriese starts to get out of his truck. He stops when another big rig “plows into a lot of cars to the right of me.” That jolt smashes dozens of scattered cars and trucks into a compact cluster. The Honda, T-boned by other cars, sits at the front of that clump.


“STAY IN THE CAR,” Phillips screams.

“GET OUT! GET OUT!” Fay shouts.

Everything slows down for him.

“The second of impact, in which I was injured, was slow motion. That second seemed like five minutes, and then....” Images of paralyzed people float through his mind. He sees his friend who has no legs. OK. OK. Don’t freak out, he tells himself. Wiggle your toes. Good. Move your legs.

Everything speeds up for her.

“She’s a-hundred-miles running,” he says. Propelled by images of the only other car wreck she has been in, she climbs through the smashed rear window -- or does she? -- and runs down the freeway.

She can’t see very well because the impact broke her glasses, but she makes out car parts flying around. She hears car after car after car. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

What should she do? Where should she go? A fatherly voice calls, “Over here! Over here!” She rushes to an “older gentleman.” He is as scared as she is.

Strangers are pulling her boyfriend out of the Honda. He’s not sure he wants to get out. Shouldn’t he wait for the paramedics?

He’s out. He’s on the ground looking up at “mountains of cars, tons of cars.” He’s lying “about two feet from a stream of diesel fuel.” He can’t walk. He can’t stand. He’s thankful to be alive and “not crushed ... not oatmeal.”

The accident continues.

When the commotion stops around his pickup, Andriese gets out to help. He climbs over cars, makes his way around the mangled cluster, notes two streams of fuel flowing from trucks. He and an off-duty L.A. County firefighter stabilize “a gentleman in fatigues.” Hurt in the accident and hit again after he stepped out of his car, he has a broken nose, facial bones, ribs and an arm. He also bleeds internally. He goes in and out of consciousness.

Phillips fractures his pelvis in three places.

“Heather! Heather! Heaaatherrrr!” he screams. “Why did she leave me?”

Standing on the side of the 710, she asks herself, Where’s Rob? Where are Felicia and Maria? Why aren’t they right behind me? “Rob! Felicia! Maria!”

Felicia Izzo answers and follows her friend’s voice. They find Maria Jacobs and finally locate Phillips, lying there listening to the sounds of more cars crashing in the distance.

The accident continues.

Paramedics arrive, assess the injured and set up tarps for triage, treatment and transport.

Phillips and Fay, each in a cervical collar, lie side by side. His body board drips diesel fuel. She begs the paramedics to keep them all together. Ambulances rush the couple to Long Beach Memorial Hospital, her friends to another emergency room. They are among 41 victims transported to eight area hospitals. The remaining 50 or so injured are assessed as “walking wounded.”

In the emergency room, their clothes reeking of diesel fuel, Phillips and Fay are interviewed by CHP officers before they’re treated.

Back at the accident scene, before 8 a.m., the CHP investigators scour the pavement for evidence, skid marks, scrapes and gouges. They find little because the ground is wet.

Andriese, the firefighter, helps Engine 11 put down absorbent to sop up the leaking fuel.

He returns to his truck. “It’s sit and wait.” For hours.

By now, more than 50 CHP officers, 42 firefighters and 10 paramedics work the accident. Long Beach police officers provide logistical support.

Buses arrive, offering a place to sit for the more than 200 motorists and passengers who are stranded, waiting to be interviewed. The Red Cross brings food and facilities.

Tow trucks show up by the dozen.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Andriese is one of the first to drive away, because his truck -- without a scratch -- is relatively easy to extricate. He heads to work.

At Long Beach Memorial Hospital, Fay is treated for a cracked nose, facial lacerations, back and neck pain. Her room is next to Phillips’.

“Can I go next door to see my girlfriend?” he asks.

She waves to him on her way to a CAT scan.

He’s admitted; she’s treated and released but refuses to leave him. She crawls into his hospital bed.

Neither has health insurance. His job as a cashier at Wild Oats in Pasadena offers coverage for employees and significant others. He’s been waiting months for the November sign-up.

Where are their house guests? A nurse calls around and finds them. Izzo has been treated for a cracked rib, Jacobs for severe back spasms. They want to go home. Now. Their suitcases, in the trunk of the Honda, can be sent later. No more L.A. freeways. They head to Long Beach Memorial, say their goodbyes to Fay and Phillips. They check into a hotel near their original destination, the Long Beach Airport, and are settled in by 5 p.m., about the time the last motorist is leaving the accident scene.

The girlfriends fly out on Monday.

Fay faces the ride home. As she passes that spot on the freeway, she freaks out.

In the days following the pileup, drivers zip along the 710, free of any reminder of the massive jumbles of vehicles or injured motorists. A few patients remain hospitalized, among them the most severely hurt, a 77-year-old woman who suffered bleeding around her heart and several fractures.

On Thursday, Phillips is discharged. A friend picks him up. When they reach the house, he struggles with the walker. It takes him 45 minutes to travel the eight feet from the car, up two steps, into the house. He cannot work for 60 to 90 days, on doctor’s advice. No work. No pay.

The accident sucker-punches the young couple, setting off another chain reaction.

How will they pay the hospital bills? His is $24,000; hers is more than $12,000. The rent?


On Friday, Fay starts work as a waitress at a coffee shop, one of a series of survival jobs that frees the Boston University graduate and aspiring filmmaker to work on her reel. She’s doing spec commercials, a music video for Phillips’ ex-girlfriend.

The accident puts everything on hold. On $8 an hour, she must support both of them.

“It’s really tough. It’s not easy,” Phillips says. The accident is “the last thing we needed. The last thing we expected.”

The first couple of weeks are hard. Fay is frustrated because she must do everything.

Phillips, equally frustrated, lies there asking, “What do you want me to do? OK. Fine. I’ll do nothing but sit here. I can’t do anything.”


“It’s a different story if one of you is injured and has gone through something traumatic, and the other can stand up and just totally take over,” she says. “When you both go through it, it’s harder.”

She has “a lot of emotional stuff going on.”

He asks her what’s wrong. “What am I supposed to do? Emotionally, I [have] nothing to give.”

She’s guilt-tripping.

“I didn’t mean to leave you,” she says of her escape from the car. “I thought you guys were behind me....”

“Heather, I’ve never -- I’m not trying to blame you,” he says.

She still has a hard time.

They visit her totaled car at a tow yard in the San Fernando Valley.

“You realize how much you’re actually in shock when an accident happens when you see [the car] two weeks later and go, Oh, I don’t remember any of this stuff. Is this the same car that was in the accident?” he says. “Did you guys hit it another a couple more times with a couple of other cars? Did you guys throw it around with the big trucks?”

She sits in the car, her first. For 45 minutes, she goes over the accident in her mind. She relives it. She cries. “Sitting in the seat where I was when it all went down” makes her sick.

She has car insurance, though not medical reimbursement. She expects a check, no replacement for a paid-off car. They contemplate another new bill.


They cut back. They get rid of cable. They borrow money from their parents to pay December rent.


A month after the accident, Phillips gives up the walker. He moves awkwardly, stiffly, jerking like a marionette. Against the doctor’s advice, he’s “fighting to get back [to work] because I don’t have any money. I’m on disability but my checks haven’t come.”

Friends arrive bearing shoes -- he never got his diesel-soaked belongings from the hospital. He loves the shoes, perfect for skateboarding, which is how he used to get to work. They bring a stack of videos too. “Movie charity,” he says.

He keeps busy playing his guitar, painting, worrying about next month’s rent.

Five weeks after the accident, his disability check comes. They can pay January rent. The car insurance check is in the mail. No more small cars for her. They buy a used Jeep.

“I feel safer,” Fay says. “I’m higher up. I have better visibility.” She ups her car insurance coverage, expecting a huge increase. Surprise. The bill gets smaller. But she still fears driving on the freeway.

Six weeks since the collision, the pain is getting better, the tears less frequent. No house guests are scheduled to come for the holidays. A little Christmas tree lights up their house. Today, more than seven weeks after the crash, CHP investigators continue to reconstruct the pile-up. They do not know what set off the chain reaction that crushed cars, shattered bones and jolted the lives of more than 200 drivers and their passengers, including one young couple’s. Bam.