As news drifted across the high desert Tuesday of a fatal crash on two-lane U.S. 395 that killed five people the night before, many residents expressed anger over a road they say has been unsafe for years.
On Monday night, a van and pickup truck collided head-on on the two-lane highway, killing five people and injuring three. Among the dead were four of five members of a Ridgecrest family riding in the van, with the only survivor an 18-month-old daughter.
The family in the van had emigrated from Pakistan, Ridgecrest school officials said. The dead are driver Ahmad Mukhtar, 36; his wife, Shahnaz N. Bibi, 36; and their daughters Kanza, 16, and Mussarat, 12.
The driver of the pickup, Juan Carlos Zelaya Jr., 25, of Tustin was killed.
"I've been working in high desert hospitals for 10 years, and it seems like at least once a week we get an accident with multiple traumas and it seems like there's a fatality from [U.S. 395] once a month," said Stacey Toro, emergency room manager at Barstow Community Hospital. "You can drive down the highway and see crosses along the road because people die there all the time."
Between 1997 and 2001, 71 people died and 643 were injured in crashes on the southern portion of U.S. 395, according to California Highway Patrol records.
The crash at 8:15 p.m. Monday occurred when the van driven by Mukhtar drifted across the yellow line and struck the southbound pickup, the CHP said.
The 18-month-old, named Maryam, who was restrained in a child safety seat, was taken to Loma Linda Medical Center and was in good condition Tuesday afternoon with a fracture of the left femur, hospital officials said. Relatives had visited the child at the hospital.
Two female passengers in the pickup were airlifted to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. They were Celeste R. Marquez, 19, of Laguna Hills, with multiple fractures, and a 15-year-old female with massive head injuries.
The hospital was not releasing information about either victim Tuesday at the request of their families.
In Ridgecrest, school officials informed students of the accident Tuesday.
"Mussarat's English-language-development class were in tears today," said Kirsti Smith, the principal of Murray Middle School in Ridgecrest. "They are actually writing notes to her even though she's gone, and they also walked around the campus trying to find a place to plant a tree in her memory."
The 98-mile span of U.S. 395 crosses a remote stretch of desert between Interstate 15 in the south and the junction with U.S. 14 in the north. The road is narrow with occasional passing lanes, requiring motorists to dart across the yellow line to pass slower traffic.
Complicating matters is that the road has what locals call "dippity-doos" -- shallow dips that make it difficult to see approaching vehicles.
"About every other year we lose a student or family from Ridgecrest on that road," said Ernie Bell, principal of Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, where Kanza attended classes.
"This needs to be a four-lane road," said Bruce Hagerty, chief of the Ridgecrest Police Department. "Sometimes you can only see the running lights of trucks, those dippity-doos are so big."
The California Department of Transportation has studied widening the entire road and anticipates that it would cost at least $1 billion. At this time, the agency has no plans to do that project, said Tim Watkins, Caltrans District 8 spokesman.
Watkins said Caltrans is proceeding with a project to smooth out the dips on a 16-mile stretch of the road between California 58 and California 18, which is south of the site of Monday's accident. Passing lanes to give cars more opportunities to pass the heavy truck traffic also would be added.
Construction won't begin for two to three years as environmental and other permits are gathered, Watkins said.