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Against a tide of steel

Times Staff Writer

He didn’t know it, but when John Tun stepped from the Honda Accord onto the shoulder of Interstate 5, he entered a realm where flesh and blood are no match for the kinetic fate dealt by the freeway.

As Tun’s wife and two children huddled in the back seat, he and a friend examined a flat tire near Santa Clarita. It was about 1:40 a.m., too dark to see broken bits of vehicles scattered about. Too dark to see the Toyota pickup bearing down on them.

“He didn’t have a chance,” said Tun’s widow, Rumchoul Ok.

Ok heard a scream. The car’s side window exploded. Tun, 27, was dragged 150 feet. His friend, Thoung Pok, dropped to the ground, her body shattered. The driver, who is serving time for vehicular manslaughter, kept going and later told authorities she thought she hit a pole.

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Freeways course through California’s landscape like raging rivers, each with its own danger level based on flow and volume, hidden hazards and seemingly safe eddies that belie swift undertows.

The 405, wide and powerful as the Mississippi; the Pasadena Freeway, one treacherous serpentine canyon after another; the 5, furious and full from bank to bank; the 15 over Cajon Pass, a crushing waterfall of speeding cars and 18-wheelers.

Falling out of the raft -- finding oneself on foot on the freeway -- is a primordial fear endemic to Southern California’s car culture. It’s a horror almost everyone has witnessed, accidents waiting to happen: the middle-aged couple huddled around a callbox; the man talking on a cellphone in the fast lane behind his disabled SUV, cars and trucks flowing around him as if he were a boulder; the family outside a broken-down van, Dad under the hood, Mom herding the kids away from traffic.

Meeting one’s maker as a pedestrian on a freeway occurs with surprising regularity. About 1 in 10 freeway deaths is a pedestrian.

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Last year in Southern California, 81 pedestrians, ranging in age from 14 to 83, were struck down on freeways -- 14 of them on the 5 through Los Angeles County, the region’s most unforgiving highway.

The circumstances that land people in this forbidding environment over the years range from the prosaic (involved in a fender-bender, stopping to switch drivers) to the bizarre.

What was a naked man doing walking on the Golden State Freeway? What are the odds that another naked man would be hit on the 105 just three months later? Why was a 91-year-old woman pushing a shopping cart on the 10?

The man who said goodnight to his 53-year-old wife can’t explain how she ended up hours later walking on the Antelope Valley Freeway three miles from their home. The man who stood up in a convertible to remove his shirt probably would have waited if he knew he’d be blown onto the 15. And the 22-year-old skateboarder who decided to cross the 10 near downtown might have reconsidered had he known what awaited.

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For some, including John Tun of Long Beach, destiny arrives with a flat tire.

“Before, I didn’t drive. My husband drove me everywhere,” his widow said. “Now I have to. But I only take regular roads. The freeway scares me.”

Seeing the freeway’s power up close shatters any doubt of its danger. Behind the wheel, ensconced in a metal cocoon and lulled by the radio, one’s sense of threat is muted by familiarity and a feeling of control.

To someone on foot, the freeway reveals its true self. It is alien, industrial, violent. Roaring engines, shifting transmissions and rolling rubber wrack the brain stem. The air is sweet with gasoline and oil. Eyes tear up processing the constant motion. Asphalt and dirt coat the tongue.

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“Rule No. 1 out here: You never take your eyes off the traffic,” said Tim Hernandez, a tow truck driver who plies the freeways, a rolling trauma center for stranded motorists.

Hernandez, 37, drives for the Freeway Service Patrol, a free, government-funded service. With his muscled build, short-cropped hair and wrap-around black sunglasses, Hernandez looks like a commando on patrol. His is a dangerous job that earns him combat pay: a few extra bucks an hour and $50,000 in life insurance.

Hunched down inches away from a torrent of rushing vehicles, Hernandez is a study in focus, even when some knucklehead driving by shouts “Look out!” hoping to see him flinch.

Sometimes he wades into the fray, as he did one recent evening when he stopped traffic on the 605 with nothing more than his outstretched arms as a tow truck pushed a disabled bus to safety.

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Once, while removing lug nuts from a flat tire on the 91, Hernandez spied a car drifting onto the median and heading straight toward him.

“I could see he was yakking on the phone,” he said of the driver. “I thought, I hope he notices me.”

He didn’t. Hernandez dived under the jacked-up vehicle’s front end. The car flew by, nearly clipped the jack and crashed into the center divider.

Hernandez’s wife wants him to quit. His mother and young daughter make it three.

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“We’re kind of like the Green Berets of tow truck drivers,” he said. “You see it all out here.”

Two men on a narrow shoulder engaged in a fistfight. A man chased by a swarm of bees, running across the 210 dodging cars and madly flapping his arms. People who wandered away from convalescent homes.

“You ask, ‘Where are you going?’ ” Hernandez said, “and they look at you like they have no clue what’s going on.”

Others know where they are, but are still clueless to the danger.

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“There are some places where we won’t attempt to repair a flat and we’ll ask them if they can move to a safer location,” Hernandez said. “Some people say, ‘What about my $3,500 rims?’ I say, “What about your life?’ ”

He pulls over and parks in front of a beat-up Civic near Whittier. A rear tire is flat. So is the spare.

Inside Nancy Parga, 33, and her 3-year-old son Shawn watch as 18-wheelers zoom by just feet away, blowing gusts of wind that rock their car. The boy seems excited by the commotion. His mom seems frazzled.

“Just to get out and go to the call box scared me,” she said. “I was so nervous.”

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She had good reason: Her cousin was killed a decade ago running across a freeway to get to an emergency phone.

The freeway’s sensory overload interferes with sound decision-making. Never is that more obvious than when someone, even in light traffic, decides it’s safe to cross four or five lanes. Odds are strong that it will end badly.

“People underestimate the danger,” said Jerry Eubanks, an accident reconstruction expert who investigated numerous freeway pedestrian fatalities while he was a San Diego police officer.

It’s impossible to gauge the speed of oncoming traffic from road level. A car that’s 500 feet away, for instance, will appear to be going much slower than it is. At that distance, the car’s size doesn’t appear to be getting bigger.

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But that changes quickly the closer the car gets. At 250 feet, the perception of its speed changes. At 125 feet, a person in the roadway finally understands the car is approaching fast -- but it’s too late to react. At 65 mph, impact is just 1.3 seconds away.

It’s the same optical trick that leads to many rural train-car accidents. From the ground, a driver perceives he can beat an oncoming train because, at a distance, it doesn’t appear to be going fast.

At impact, physics takes over. A 4,000-pound car slamming into a human at 65 mph will slow less than 2 mph. The pedestrian, on the other hand, absorbs the full brunt -- a body accelerating from zero to 65 in one-tenth of a second.

“There’s a lot of G-force involved when you accelerate at such a startling rate,” said Ken Libbrecht, chairman of Caltech’s physics department. “It would be like falling off the Empire State Building.”

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A 1996 report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found pedestrians accounted for 12% of all interstate highway deaths. Most happened at night. Less than 1% of victims were highway construction workers. Nearly a third were “unintended pedestrians” such as motorists with disabled cars.

But 40% of accidents involved people deliberately walking onto the freeway -- either as a shortcut, or because of irrational or suicidal behavior.

How Pamela Williams came to be strolling across an industrial-strength ugly stretch of the 10 Freeway in Colton at midnight will never be known, or whether she saw the Prelude bearing down on her at 70 mph.

What is known is that Williams, 48, lived on the streets of San Bernardino County and suffered for decades with epilepsy. On April 20, 2006, she collapsed from a seizure and was taken by ambulance to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. She was treated overnight with phenobarbital, a powerful barbiturate. At daybreak, a hospital worker called a friend of Williams’ but got a busy signal. Within minutes, Williams was released.

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Seventeen hours later she was dead, literally cut in half. Her torso smashed through the car’s windshield and landed in the back seat. The driver kept going, got off at the next exit and discarded the body in a trash bin. When police arrested him, he was covered in blood. Last month he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and is awaiting sentencing.

“I could have hit her. You could have hit her. I don’t blame him for the incident, although he definitely doesn’t have clean hands here,” said Diane Heliotes, Williams’ cousin. “What in the world was she thinking? Obviously she wasn’t. She was disoriented.”

But not suicidal. “This is a woman who was desperately trying to put her life back together,” said Bradley Thrasher, a paralegal who befriended Williams and was working to get her government disability benefits. “She had a lot of integrity.”

Her gruesome death on the freeway still tugs at Thrasher. Williams had given him her meager belongings for safekeeping: size 4 1/2 work boots tied to a child’s Scooby Doo backpack. Inside were bottles of shampoo and conditioner, mascara, a Christmas tree decoration and a framed picture of a unicorn and saber-toothed tiger. There were several bottles of prescription medicine; the one for phenobarbital, which kept her seizures in check, is empty. Jailhouse letters from her son. Unpaid hospital bills and a collection notice.

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“I don’t know why I’ve kept it,” Thrasher said. “I guess I wasn’t ready to let go of that little girl.”

For Julie Bessenbacher, the death of her son Steven on the 55 was a cleansing baptism for a troubled soul.

Steven Murray was 29 when he died. Half his life was spent in juvenile and adult jails, much of the rest on the streets of Long Beach. He was 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and thick with tattoos. He liked to fight, and drugs and booze ignited a smoldering anger.

A parole violation sent him back to prison when he was 25. When released, he told his mother he found religion behind bars. She was skeptical. But he moved back in with her, abandoned his old friends, stayed sober and got a job working as a courier. She framed a poem he wrote to her.

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I know I’ve let you down in many ways.

We both know this is true. But I’ve finally got a worthwhile future.

And this I’ll show you soon

Murray was out of prison nine months when police came knocking on his mother’s door. She figured he’d let her down again.

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Instead, they told her Murray had died on his way to work. He stopped on the freeway where a pickup had rear-ended a Cherokee. He got out to ask if anyone needed help. As he stood in a northbound lane, a car slammed into the pickup, pinning Murray between two vehicles.

“When I looked back and thought about it, I could see how God had orchestrated things,” Bessenbacher said. “What better way of dying than to lay down your own life trying to help someone else?”

Our Good Samaritan is etched on Murray’s gravestone.

“God vindicated Steven in his death,” she said. “He was no longer known as just a criminal. It was a miracle. Something God gave to me.”

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mike.anton@latimes.com


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