Six people were killed Thursday and six more injured when a tractor-trailer loaded with furniture crashed into a Toyota Corolla and then plowed through the center divider on the Long Beach Freeway at Olympic Boulevard, crushing a black Mercedes-Benz and causing a chain reaction that eventually involved seven vehicles.
As workers began the painstaking task of removing and identifying the bodies, California Highway Patrol officials and neighborhood activists renewed their calls for increased safety measures on the corridor. The Long Beach Freeway is infamously overcrowded and was not built to handle the 47,000 tractor-trailers that use it every day, hauling freight from nearby industrial towns and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Thursday's crash killed four occupants of the big-rig's cab, all employees of Rebel Van Lines, a family-owned moving company based in Compton, as well as the driver and a passenger in the Mercedes.
"In 23 years this is the most fatalities I've seen in one accident," said CHP Officer Jesse Cezares. "When I first got on the scene, I tried to see what was going on. We opened up the cab and started bringing out bodies, and I thought, 'Oh my God it's three -- now it's four.... It was really tragic."
The Los Angeles County coroner's office identified four of the victims, without specifying which vehicle they were in. They are: Jeffrey Davis, 41; James Glasper, 39; James Hernandez, 48; and Jorge Manzur, 50.
Two years ago, the CHP identified the I-710 from the ports to the Santa Ana Freeway as one of the three most dangerous stretches in the state. Just last month, a tanker truck carrying 9,000 gallons of gasoline jackknifed and exploded on the freeway, killing the big rig's driver and forcing the evacuation of about 150 nearby residents.
Between January 1998 and April of this year, 913 people were injured in 3,140 truck accidents on that stretch of the freeway. Including Thursday's victims, at least 25 people have been killed in that period.
"We're very concerned about it," said CHP Assistant Chief Art Acevedo. For a time, Acevedo said, the CHP had a federal grant to step up enforcement of traffic infractions on the Long Beach Freeway, and that helped reduce fatalities. But that money has run out.
The worst part of the highway, Acevedo said, is the transition to the northbound Santa Ana Freeway, near where Thursday's accident occurred. That stretch was not built with the connector roads on the right-hand side like modern highways, so trucks must cross several lanes of traffic in order to merge onto the Santa Ana Freeway.
Fully 15% of the nation's international container trade travels along the 710 en route to rail yards east of Los Angeles, warehouses in the Inland Empire and importers nationwide.
The truck involved in Thursday's crash was carrying the personal possessions of a family moving from Hawaii to Southern California. The family's furniture, clothes and toys came into the Port of Los Angeles on a container ship, and were packed into the Rebel Van Lines truck Thursday morning.
The driver of the truck, part of the family that owned the business but identified by a relative only as "Uncle Jim," set out with two longtime employees and a recent hire about 8 a.m., driving north on the 710 Freeway in a big tractor-trailer equipped with a large cab designed for sleeping.
According to Acevedo, the truck was driving north in the third lane of the four-lane freeway. At 8:25, it veered to the right, hitting a 1998 maroon Toyota Corolla that was in the far right lane.
At that point, the truck spun out of control, Acevedo and others said, bouncing across three lanes of traffic, crashing through a wood-and-concrete median and landing on top of the Mercedes, which was traveling on the southbound side of the freeway.
The impact wrenched the cab away from the trailer and left a trucker's hat, a driver's daily log book and other personal effects strewn across the roadway.
"The impact was so violent," Acevedo said, his voice trailing away. "It was just too violent."
The Toyota was totaled, but its driver, a woman whose name was not released, walked away with only minor injuries, apparently saved by her seat belt and the car's air bag.
The freeway was closed until 3:30 p.m., Acevedo said.
Robert Vaudreuil, 26, of Lakewood, spent most of the day at the scene. He said he was the nephew of the truck driver, whose last name he would not release until the family had had a chance to meet and talk.
Vaudreuil said the company was a family operation, employing his mother, cousins, grandfather, uncle and himself. He said his grandfather, Bill Greek, founded the company and that his uncle had been driving for about 20 years.
Nanette Vaudreuil, the company's treasurer-secretary, said the family knew little about what had happened and was relying mostly on Internet reports for information.
Interviewed at the company's headquarters along the railroad tracks in Compton, she said that Greek was not available for comment.
Robert Vaudreuil, who said he has worked for the company since he was 16 and often drives its trucks, said it's a dangerous job on the 710 and off.
"I just want to get the point across that these are people up in these trucks," he said. "They'll go out of their way to make sure other people don't get hurt. They just want to get where they're going."