Six people were injured, two seriously, when four cars piled up Saturday in a fiery, chain-reaction collision on the San Diego Freeway in Irvine.
A California Highway Patrol investigator said an elderly couple and their son were trapped in one of the burning vehicles and might have died had not a group of passers-by pulled them from the wreckage.
The pileup closed all southbound lanes of the freeway for about 15 minutes and backed up traffic as far away as Los Alamitos for about an hour.
The 11:30 a.m. accident occurred as southbound traffic was slowing as it passed a minor accident on the northbound side of the freeway, said CHP Officer Harry Gillespie.
A Saab moving at freeway speed rear-ended a Buick that had slowed behind a Volkswagen in the fast lane just south of MacArthur Boulevard, Gillespie said.
The Buick erupted in flames, rammed the Volkswagen in front of it and veered into the center divider, trapping its driver and passengers, Martin and Emma Gassner, ages 74 and 73 respectively, of Pico Rivera, and their son, Wilfred Gassner, 41, of Long Beach.
Gillespie said they might have died had not a group of four or five men jumped over the center divider from the northbound lanes and pulled the Gassners from the burning car. Gillespie said the unidentified men appeared to be Marines.
The Gassners were taken to Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, where the elder Gassners were admitted in serious condition and their son was treated and released.
After rear-ending the Buick, the Saab was struck from behind by a Plymouth and burst into flames, Gillespie said. The Saab's driver, James B. Green, 22, of Redondo Beach, was treated at the scene for minor burns, a CHP spokesman said.
The occupants of the Volkswagen--Wayne and Mary Aschenbeck, ages 41 and 37 respectively, of Mission Viejo--and the driver of the Plymouth--Lois Brenner, 41, of Irvine--were treated and released from Heathcare Medical Center of Tustin.
Both the Buick and the Saab were destroyed by fire, and the other cars were "probably totaled" as well, Gillespie said.
CHP officers closed the freeway while 31 firefighters and paramedics tended the victims and extinguished the fires. "We couldn't let anyone by because the cars were still on fire and there was a chance of more gasoline tanks blowing," Gillespie said.
All lanes remained closed for about 15 minutes until officers opened the shoulder and two lanes. The wreckage was towed away about 40 minutes later.