For Sunday drivers, a snail’s pace

Times Staff Writer

The promising news that part of Interstate 5 would reopen today arrived too late to calm the frayed nerves of Sharafali Shaherwalla.

Late Sunday afternoon, Shaherwalla dragged himself into a Chevron mini-mart just off the freeway in Sylmar, searching for a way around the freeway pileup ahead that threatened to turn an otherwise placid drive into a maddening standstill.

“I have no estimate of the freeways in this area,” said the engineer, who was returning to San Jose from a family celebration in San Diego.

A few miles north, Veronica Rivera struggled to overcome her exasperation as she helped her boyfriend jump-start a Ford Mustang that died after idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic.


“I’ve never been stuck in traffic so long,” Rivera said, standing in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot near San Fernando Road and the 14 Freeway. “It’s horrible.”

The fiery crash Friday that left three dead and 10 injured caught many motorists unaware, turning casual Sunday drives in the usually quiet mountain pass into nightmares.

Authorities diverted northbound motorists from I-5 onto San Fernando Road, jamming thousands of cars onto the narrow roadway. The same scene played out for motorists heading south of Stevenson Ranch and Magic Mountain, where police directed a sea of cars from the freeway onto Calgrove Boulevard and the Old Road.

Frustrated motorists eager to escape the bottlenecks veered away from conventional driving rules and took matters into their own hands in some cases.


One car heading north on I-5 drove over a dirt divider with plastic orange barriers, trying to flee jammed car lanes for unclogged truck lanes. A black SUV also heading north backed down the center divider in another location in an attempt to make a U-turn and head south.

Retired human resources administrator Georgia Finseth found herself caught in the thicket. She left Modesto on Sunday morning, figuring she would have a pleasant drive to a family reunion in Rancho Mirage. She was listening to a Clive Cussler book on tape when she reached the traffic quagmire just south of Magic Mountain.

“I didn’t have a clue. I was enjoying a really nice ride,” Finseth said. “I came on a Sunday because it’s quiet.”

But the traffic was not the worst of it, Finseth said. The biggest nuisance: motorcycles slashing through lanes, shooting between cars.


“It’s really frustrating, especially not knowing what’s going on,” she said, adding that it wouldn’t have done any good to turn on the news once she was stuck in traffic.

The traffic created opportunity for some.

A Chevron gas station and mini-mart on Roxford Street in Sylmar did brisk business all weekend, even if patrons were tired and grouchy. The station had sold so much gas Saturday that it had run out of all but its most expensive grade -- premium, at $3.42 a gallon.

An exhausted clerk, Lois Morris, 24, said the store was about three times as busy as normal.


“It’s been like this for three days already,” said Morris, who added that she was not looking forward to her shift today. “It’s not going to be any better.”

Frank Case wasn’t lucky enough to reach the Chevron station. The sixth-grade teacher heading from Stockton to Los Angeles ran out of gas on the Old Road after spending two hours waiting to leave I-5.

A California Highway Patrol unit pushed Case’s Dodge pickup off the street, promising to send someone with gas. But three hours into his ordeal, Case, 50, was sitting by the side of the road waiting for help to arrive.

“I wasn’t anticipating being in a jam that long,” he said. “I thought there’d be a gas station.”


Then, trying to take it in stride, he added: “What are you going to do? That’s life.”