‘I Saw Us Going Over the Edge’
As the commuter van pulled away from the Lancaster Park and Ride in the predawn light Wednesday, Cheryl Lynn Allworth settled in her seat next to the driver and greeted the group of riders behind her who had become like a second family.
A 48-year-old executive secretary in Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Space Experiments Systems Section, Allworth had been riding JPL van pool No. 36 for nine years. Many of the other passengers had been there just as long, and they passed the hourlong journey over the San Gabriel Mountains sharing laughs and stories.
As he sometimes did, Javier Bautista was filling in for the van’s regular driver Wednesday. Will Wright, a regular passenger in van 36, had decided to take his car into work and would follow the van over the mountain road.
Allworth took the roll call: Peter Robles of Lancaster, who Allworth believed to work in the NASA management office. David Myers of Palmdale. Jim Kitahara of Lancaster, whom Allworth knew as “always friendly and upbeat.” Christopher Butts of Rosamond, a relative newcomer to the group. Helga Maria Wurm, who Allworth described as “quiet and shy” but always nice. Kerri Lynn Agey, a contractor for JPL’s security service. Dorothy M. Forks of Lancaster, who worked in human resources. Jane F. Galloway, a JPL business manager and close friend of Allworth, had gotten engaged Saturday, though Allworth didn’t know it yet.
With all 10 aboard, the van headed for the two-lane Angeles Forest Highway, Allworth said from the hospital Thursday.
“We had a ball in the van,” she said “A lot of joking would go on, kidding around with each other, small digs, male-female stuff, funny and friendly.”
Most of the passengers were Christians, Allworth said, and often they talked “about what was going on in the different churches.” Sometimes they invited one another to Bible studies.
But on Wednesday the group was exceptionally quiet, she said.
“I didn’t hear any conversations on the way there,” Allworth said. She was feeling quiet too. On Tuesday she had stayed home sick with a 24-hour bug. As the van approached what the passengers referred to as “The Crest,” Allworth dozed and looked out the window, feeling ill.
The van didn’t always take the winding mountain shortcut.
“If we had freezing rain the night before and Angeles Crest is open but we don’t think it’s safe, we take the other route, going the freeway instead,” Allworth said. “I didn’t realize there was a need to yesterday.”
Bautista was a safe driver, Allworth said, and had driven the route a number of times.
But there had been a number of close calls in the last nine years.
“We’ve had to slam on the brakes. But when the road conditions are good, and the driver is awake and alert, it’s OK. It’s not the safest way, but it’s no less safe than the [California] 14.”
As the van reached the halfway point about 6 a.m., everything went wrong.
Allworth was dozing when the road banked left and the van went straight, its right wheels running over a foot-high dirt berm along the shoulder.
“I felt the van jerk to the right side,” she said. “It didn’t seem normal. As I opened my eyes I saw us going over the edge. I was awake the whole time. I remember us rolling and rolling over from side to side. There was grass and debris flying. People were screaming and crying and praying. It was horrible. It was so fast.”
According to Allworth, colleagues say Wright, who was following the van, told authorities that it was going about 35 mph before it went off the road.
The van stopped rolling about 400 feet below the road in a rocky gorge, its windows shattered and roof collapsed.
“Peter Robles was able to get out and stand up,” Allworth said. “He thought his rib was fractured. He was praying over people and thanking God that he was virtually walking away.”
Behind Allworth, Helga Wurm had broken her back, and was lying immobile on the bench seat.
The driver was trapped beneath the roof, which had fractured his neck, and in shock.
“He couldn’t get out and kept honking the horn and fidgeting with the keys and playing with the door locks,” Allworth recalled. “I couldn’t get any response out of him. He didn’t know what was going on.”
Then Allworth realized that the pools of blood in the van were coming from her foot. “I wrapped my sock around my foot like a tourniquet and put it up on the dash. I was concerned about getting my foot elevated. “
Because she couldn’t turn her head, Allworth didn’t see that Forks, Galloway, and Agey had been killed. Amid the moans of pain and cries for help, Allworth waited for help.
Soon, California Highway Patrol officers and U.S. Forest Service workers were scrambling down the ravine. Helicopters were overhead, turning a cold morning into a freezing windchill for the trapped passengers.
“I don’t have words to express what an incredible job they did in getting down there and getting us out of there,” Allworth said. “Every few minutes I had someone checking in on me. I said, ‘It’s not that bad. Take care of everyone else.’ ”
About 90 minutes later, she was lifted into the helicopter and rushed to the hospital.
Still in the van were the dead.
“Three great ladies were lost,” Allworth said.
She recalled Forks as “a kindhearted, loving person who would do anything for anyone.”
Agey, who rode only occasionally, was a Christian who “talked about her faith,” Allworth said, and was “someone I thought could be a good friend.”
Jane Galloway was a close friend, “a wonderful person ... smart, funny.” And as of last weekend, engaged to Tim Geddes. Geddes, reached Thursday at Galloway’s home in Lancaster, said, “I can’t even talk.”
On Thursday, Bautista was in critical condition; Wurm was in serious condition; three, including Allworth, were in fair or good condition; and two had been released.