Not far from a billboard that reads “Danger: Deathtrap Highway,” a pickup truck swerved off the Pearblossom Highway early Wednesday and sank in the California Aqueduct, killing an unlicensed driver and her three children.
Only a 10-year-old girl survived the dawn plunge along a desolate and dangerous stretch of California 138 in the Antelope Valley. She was reported to be in a coma late Wednesday at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.
The driver, Marisol Morales, 32, was killed along with Raul Jr., 9; Silvia, 5; and Oscar, 1, said Raul Morales, Marisol’s husband. The surviving girl is Rosa Ramirez, a cousin from North Hollywood who had been visiting the Morales family, said the girl’s brother, Joseph Morales, 21.
“They told me if she survives, she’ll be brain-damaged,” Joseph Morales said while waiting outside Childrens Hospital. “But all I’m worried about is that she survives.... I was 10 years older than her, so I held her when she was a baby. I used to change her diapers.”
Raul Morales said his wife had been learning to drive in their Palmdale neighborhood over the last few months but didn’t have a license. She was bringing him a toolbox Wednesday, Morales said, because his truck had broken down.
“My whole family is dead,” he said from his frontyard late Wednesday, facing rows of TV cameras. Morales, 30, a commercial painter, was holding a photograph of his children, his hands caked with white paint. “I don’t have nothing in this whole world.”
Although the cause of the accident remained under investigation, authorities said Marisol Morales apparently lost control of the king-cab Nissan Frontier pickup as she drove west near the town of Pearblossom. The truck veered off the two-lane highway and plunged into the concrete canal, which slices across the Mojave Desert, carrying water from Northern California.
When the truck was pulled from the water hours after the rescue effort, firefighters found the artifacts of a typical family: a child’s seat, a little girl’s shoes, a red apple in the cup-holder, a Game Boy and a small blue box covered with Tickle Me Elmo stickers. Amid the broken glass were dripping blue and pink seat covers decorated with Hello Kitty and the Powerpuff Girls.
The accident occurred 23 miles from the spot where screenwriter Gary Devore drove off the Antelope Valley Freeway and into the aqueduct in 1997. His body was found in his submerged car a year later.
Wednesday’s accident happened about 6:50 a.m., according to a California Highway Patrol investigator, Officer Rusty Moore. He said a passing motorist saw the truck drive onto the highway shoulder at about 50 to 60 mph, then slow down, speed up, swerve briefly onto the road and then careen off.
Smashing through a barbed-wire fence, the vehicle plunged off a 30-foot embankment and into the channel, where the swiftly flowing water was 15 feet deep.
Los Angeles County Firefighter Jeff Britton said he arrived first, at 7 a.m., and found several motorists’ cars parked along the highway. One man had already tried diving into the aqueduct, but told Britton he couldn’t see the pickup.
Gazing into the water, Britton could see bubbles rising, but decided it was too dangerous to try diving in without proper equipment. He spent 15 minutes waiting for help. “There was absolutely nothing I could do,” he said. “One of the hardest things I’ve done in my life is stand on that bank and wait.”
When an engine finally arrived, Firefighter Ron McFadden emerged in a T-shirt and shorts, carrying a breathing apparatus usually used for house fires. McFadden had received his department’s Medal of Valor in 2000 for a rescue of a child in the same stretch of the aqueduct. Once again, he put on a mask and dived into the frigid water, soon emerging with the 10-year-old girl.
McFadden returned to pull out two more people, but was showing signs of hypothermia, Britton said. At that point, Britton took over, at first trying a rescue while wearing a wetsuit, but then abandoning it when it made him too buoyant to reach the truck. He jumped in wearing only jeans and pulled out the remaining two victims.
Both firefighters were treated for possible hypothermia.
Paramedic Mike Jarratt and his colleagues administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the aqueduct banks but the victims were “totally unresponsive,” he said.
At 7:51 a.m., an hour after the crash, a Blackhawk helicopter lifted off with the four young victims, en route to Childrens Hospital. All four were admitted in full cardiac arrest and suffering from hypothermia, said Dr. Calvin Lowe, the attending emergency physician.
Doctors tried to warm the children with blankets and incubators, but were unable to revive them, he said. The three Morales children were pronounced dead between 8:24 and 9:10 a.m. Doctors were able to get a heartbeat from the 10-year-old, who was on life support in the intensive-care unit late Wednesday.
Attending physicians said they understood that the children had been submerged for 30 to 40 minutes. Usually, patients who go more than five minutes without oxygen suffer permanent brain damage, they said.
Marisol Morales was taken in a second helicopter to Antelope Valley Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
A neighbor, Graciela Aguliera, had been driving the Morales children to school until last week, when Marisol Morales began driving them, said Aguliera’s mother, Mary Estrada. Estrada said she had seen Morales driving tentatively on the quiet side streets of their neighborhood and was surprised that she had tried to drive the highway.
Over the years, there have been complaints about dangers along both the California Aqueduct and California 138. Several people have died in the aqueduct, most prominently Devore, the screenwriter.
His widow, Wendy Oates-Devore, filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Transportation in 1999, claiming that his death was caused by dangerous conditions on the Antelope Valley Freeway where it crosses the aqueduct. The suit was dismissed, said Caltrans spokesman David Anderson.
A spate of accidents along 138 has led victims’ families to erect billboards branding it the “Deathtrap Highway.”
The road, which connects Ventura County to the Antelope Valley, is a two-lane blacktop that cuts though open desert and thickets of Joshua trees.
“With any two-lane roads with no center divider, you’re six inches from a head-on,” said Lt. Andria Witmer of the CHP’s Antelope Valley division.
The stretch where the crash occurred has a 55-mph speed limit. Motorists are required to use headlights in certain sections.
In the last decade, Witmer said, state and federal funds have provided safeguards, including “rumble strips,” roadway bumps designed to rattle a car that drifts into the oncoming lane. CHP officers have been offered overtime to provide extra patrols on accident-prone sections.
In 2002, there were 94 collisions and two fatalities along that section of highway, Witmer said, compared to 82 collisions and four fatalities during 2001.
By 2025, the state hopes to widen California 138 into a four-lane road, she said. It will be especially important as builders continue constructing houses in northern Los Angeles County.
Still, she said, she could envision nothing that would have prevented Wednesday’s accident. “What could we do standing in a black-and-white?” Witmer asked. “We could wave our hands and yell ‘Stop,’ but that wouldn’t have helped.”
Raul Morales, who brought his wife to the United States from El Salvador in 1990, said he hopes to raise enough money to bury his family in their hometown of Metapan.
“It’s sad and painful,” he said. “There are no words. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
Times staff writers Hector Becerra, Hanah Cho, Mitchell Landsberg, Jessica Garrison and Kristina Sauerwein contributed to this report.