A witness to the fatal truck crash that killed two people at the base of the Angeles Crest in 2009 testified this week that when the truck hit the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, she thought that she and the truck's driver “were going to die right at that moment.”
Melissa Watkins, the shop's inventory manager at the time, said in court Monday that she and truck driver Marcos Costa locked eyes for a brief, terrifying moment while Costa's 25-ton car hauler barreled toward the store and she ran for her life to a side door.
“I saw the horror on his face. His eyes were bulging out of his head,” said Watkins, who was unharmed in the crash and went on to work as a teacher. “I felt like he was looking right into my eyes and I into his. I thought we both thought we were going to die.”
Watkins, who was testifying in Costa's murder trial, also said that she saw Costa struggle to steer the truck left away from the storefront as it approached after striking cars “with such a force there were literally like sparks of light in the air.”
Palmdale resident Angel Posca, 58, and his 12-year-old daughter Angelina were killed and a dozen others were injured when Costa, 46, lost the brakes on his truck while descending Angeles Crest Highway and plowed through its busy terminus at Foothill Boulevard in La Cañada Flintridge.
The sound of Posca's sedan being crushed and then pushed forward by the impact “was like a thundering, rolling, scraping train coming,” said Watkins, who compared the rumbling of the oncoming truck to 1994's magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake.
Costa faces a life sentence if convicted of charges that include two counts of murder and vehicular manslaughter and three counts of reckless driving.
During opening arguments Friday, attorneys presented starkly different views of events leading up to the crash.
In a statement that culminated with jarring video of the fatal crash shot from a bus's dashboard camera, Los Angeles County Deputy District Atty. Carolina Lugo argued that Costa was aware the brakes were overheating and had been warned of the dangers of continuing along the highway's steep downgrade, but did so anyway.
Defense attorney Edward Murphy said testimony coming over the next four weeks will show that Costa properly inspected and maintained the brakes on his 18-wheeler before they quit on the highway's sudden straightaway descent into La Cañada.
“This is one of the most horrendous accidents that you'll ever see in your life, but as you'll hear from the testimony, that's what it was — an accident,” Murphy said.
Lugo argued that negligence is to blame for the crash, saying an L.A. County firefighter will testify that he flagged down Costa's truck before it turned off Angeles Forest Highway onto Angeles Crest to warn him that the brakes were burning up.
Yannette Posca, wife and mother of those killed in the crash, also took the stand.
“They took my family. My family's gone,” said Posca, who recalled last speaking to Angelina, her youngest of five children, by telephone the day before the crash.
Posca has filed wrongful death suits against Costa and the city of La Cañada Flintridge, Los Angeles County and the California Department of Transportation. Costa also has a civil suit pending against those agencies, claiming improper road maintenance — including an absence of signage and runaway truck ramps — is to blame for the crash.
Watkins fought back tears while describing how she and others rushed to the aid of two people inside the store — a terrified child and a woman who suffered a broken leg while being pinned against debris.
She broke down while recalling how, after being led outside by emergency response workers, she noticed a girl's pink jacket among the twisted wreckage of Angel Posca's red sedan.
Costa, who was also standing outside after being freed from his truck, was silent, Watkins recalled.
“His mouth was open and his eyes were wide and we were both staring at the red car,” she said.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version]