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Truck had role in I-5 inferno

Leonard is a Times staff writer.

A speeding trucker who lost control of his tractor-trailer triggered last year’s deadly Interstate 5 pileup in a tunnel near Santa Clarita, according to an investigation that also raised concerns about a possible maintenance failure by the company that owned the truck.

The account, compiled by California Highway Patrol investigators and reflected in a district attorney’s memo, offers the first official report of what caused the fiery pileup that severed the state’s primary north-south traffic artery for trucks for about a month.

CHP investigators determined that Jose Reyes, 29, was driving at least 65 mph along the rain-slicked freeway when his truck veered left and crashed into a concrete median wall after driving through the tunnel, according to the prosecutor’s memo obtained by The Times. The posted speed limit for that stretch of road is 55 mph.

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Reyes’ crash set off chain-reaction collisions behind him that killed a 6-year-old boy and two adults, and injured 10 others.

A CHP spokeswoman said investigators recommended that Los Angeles County prosecutors file vehicular manslaughter charges against Reyes. But prosecutors declined, citing among their reasons a finding by investigators that the right front brake of Reyes’ truck was not in working condition.

The truck’s owner, Saia Motor Freight Line Inc., rather than Reyes, was responsible for the vehicle’s maintenance, Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Courtney Armendariz wrote in her memo. The prosecutor concluded that a defense expert could easily charge that a faulty brake caused the veering and crash.

A team of CHP investigators is continuing to examine what caused the accident and its findings so far are preliminary.

Thirty-three trucks and one car were involved in the Oct. 12, 2007, accident near the Interstate 5 interchange with the Antelope Valley Freeway.

Once Reyes crashed, his truck blocked southbound lanes about 1,400 to 1,700 feet beyond the tunnel. Several trucks were able to stop in time to avoid hitting him.

But as traffic slowed, other trucks collided near the tunnel exit, leading to the fatal accidents about four to five minutes after Reyes’ crash. Flames shot through the 550-foot tunnel, trapping motorists and melting vehicles as temperatures inside soared to about 1,500 degrees.

CHP investigators reconstructed the accident to estimate Reyes’ speed. They concluded that the tractor-trailer was traveling too fast as it headed along the curving, wet freeway as Reyes hauled a load of coffee beans from Fresno to Orange.

“The guy jackknifed. Obviously it was too fast for the conditions,” CHP Sgt. Mark Garrett said.

But Armendariz noted in her memo that the estimate was far from conclusive. A defense expert, she wrote, could use other simulator programs that might come up with different results and show that Reyes was not speeding.

Armendariz and district attorney’s officials declined to comment on the investigation or elaborate on their decision not to file criminal charges. But her memo makes it clear that prosecutors concluded there were several reasons for the fatal accidents. The memo said the CHP investigator concurred with the prosecutor’s decision.

An analysis of the right front brake on Reyes’ 2004 Volvo led investigators to conclude that the vehicle was in an “out of service” condition, according to the prosecutor’s memo. Photographs taken after the crash show a buildup of old grease around the wheel that could have prevented the right brake from grabbing as well as the left one.

Such a problem would cause the truck to veer to the left when a driver applied the brakes, Armendariz wrote. In fact, Reyes’ vehicle did veer left when he lost control.

CHP officials believed that Reyes would have been able to see the safety problem when he conducted a required inspection of the vehicle before setting off. But prosecutors said the trucker could argue that the buildup did not become visible until he started driving or until after the crash, when the engine was dislodged and oil sprayed in all directions.

Howard A. Goldstein, an attorney representing a driver who was badly burned in the pileup and filed a lawsuit against the state and the trucking firm last month, said he was not surprised to learn that a braking failure could have caused the pileup. He said trucking companies often sacrifice safety in an attempt to cut costs.

“I see a lot of cases where there’s a failure to maintain the truck,” Goldstein said.

A spokeswoman for Georgia-based Saia issued a statement Tuesday saying that the company’s vehicle had been regularly maintained and met state and federal safety requirements. The fatalities in the tunnel, she said, were unrelated to Reyes’ accident.

“The tunnel is well known for being dangerous, with blind spots, curves and inadequate lighting,” spokeswoman Sally Buchholz said in the statement.

CHP investigators believe at least three other motorists may also have been speeding when they crashed. Among them was Hugo Raymundo Rodriguez, 38, who was killed instantly when his truck crashed in the tunnel. His young son, Isaiah, survived the collision but died when flames consumed his father’s truck, the prosecutor’s memo said. A third victim, Ricardo Cibrian Baltazar, 39, also died in the fire.

As drivers entered the tunnel, flashing signs warned them of the slippery conditions inside. But prosecutors said that one of the signs did not have its warning lights activated at the time of the collision.

Since the crash, Caltrans has taken steps to improve visibility inside the tunnel, coating it with reflective paint and installing a lighting system that simulates daylight. Spokeswoman Judy Gish said the agency has also reduced the speed limit from 55 mph to 45 mph, though the limit in the area where Reyes crashed remains 55 mph.

A CHP spokesman said investigators are unlikely to recommend any other criminal prosecutions in connection with the crash. A final report on its causes is expected to be completed in January.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com


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