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2 Drivers Live to Tell About It : Plunge Off Cliffs Is One Too Many

January 06, 1985|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

It was well past midnight when Bill Weller pulled into the turnout near Marineland, hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean. He hit the brakes, but the car he thought of as "a favorite toy" crashed through the fence and kept going, while Weller sat and thought, "This is going to be a long fall."

Two weeks later and a few miles away, Jon Liuzzi was heading home at midday to retrieve some papers, when a stereo speaker dropped off his dashboard. Liuzzi bent down to grab the speaker, the car went over the side, and Liuzzi was filled with a "feeling of falling and falling."

Neither Weller nor Liuzzi remembers his accident from start to finish; both lost consciousness before hitting bottom. But more surprising is the fact that either man is alive to remember anything at all.

"I guess it just wasn't his time," said Palos Verdes Estates Detective Tom Vanderpool, who investigated Liuzzi's Dec. 17 accident.

Also surprising to Vanderpool and to Sheriff Deputy Dan Calhoun, who is based in the substation in Lomita and who investigates traffic accidents on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, was that neither Weller nor Liuzzi had been drinking and neither man was trying to kill himself.

"Very seldom do you have (an accident) where a car just drives off" the Palos Verdes cliffs, Calhoun said.

A Favorite Spot

Weller, a 30-year-old research assistant at Hughes Aircraft Co., said the turnout on Palos Verdes Drive South in Rancho Palos Verdes near Marineland is one of his favorite spots, either as the start of a jaunt down the hill to the water or as a site to watch the way the light plays on the water and the sky merges with the Pacific far out to sea.

On the morning of Dec. 3, he said, he headed from his Hawthorne home to the Peninsula for a post-midnight drive when he had trouble sleeping. He said he was "going kind of fast" as he approached the turnout, and "it was a last-minute decision to turn in there." As he did, "the car didn't stop; that was the problem."

"I can't say I was really panicked," Weller remembered. "I didn't really have time to be afraid. I saw the fence coming up, and it was stark and real. . . . The most disconcerting feeling was seeing it was a split rail fence and knowing it wasn't going to stop me."

Weller said that he remembered once watching people push a derelict car off a Peninsula cliff--police say such activity is a favorite Peninsula sport--and waiting four or five seconds to hear the noise of the car hitting land. Thus, as the 1973 Camaro on which he had done so much engine work went over the side, Weller said he had a "sinking feeling, thinking, 'Oh, God, this is going to be a long fall.' "

Weller said he does not remember much after that. He said the car apparently hit an embankment below the fence and about 30 feet out from it, turned over twice and slid backward, coming to rest about 150 feet down the cliff.

"When I came to, it was to the sound of a voice coming down the hill," Weller said. The voice belonged to Jeff Gardner of Torrance, who had been parked with his girlfriend near the turnout and who called paramedics and then went down the hill to comfort Weller.

The paramedics rappelled down the cliff, "carried me up the hill on a stretcher and I got a helicopter ride to the hospital." After only five days in the hospital for treatment of cuts and bruises, Weller said, he was discharged.

Two weeks later and several miles to the northwest, Liuzzi, a 23-year-old Cal State Long Beach psychology major, went over the side near Bluff Cove in Palos Verdes Estates, tumbling end over end to the ground 300 feet below.

Liuzzi said he was heading home to get a folder containing school assignments when a stereo speaker fell from his dashboard and he leaned down to pick it up.

"All of a sudden I felt myself going over," he said. "It was that quick. I fell about 100 feet and I felt that 100-foot drop. I hit a bolder or something" and lost consciousness.

As he was headed for midair, Liuzzi said, "It was just a shock. I couldn't believe it was happening. I thought, 'Oh my God, not now,' because I had so much to do, school finals and other things."

As he went down, there was "just that feeling of falling and falling. It was something not many people could understand. Unfortunately, it happened to me, and it was so scary. . . . I felt myself going down and dropping. . . . I thought I was going to die. I thought death was there."

What turned out to be there for Liuzzi was weeks of hospitalization.

Interviewed last week at Torrance Memorial Hospital, where he has had hip surgery and an operation on his chin, Liuzzi said the need for physical therapy to repair the damage done by the accident will force him to miss a semester of college.

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