Westminster firefighters, trying to cut a critically injured woman from a crumpled car beside the San Diego Freeway early Monday, had to withstand wave after wave of attacks from two nests of bumblebees disturbed by the wreck.
The early morning accident--in which the car sailed off the freeway and out of sight down a freeway embankment, killing its driver--lay undiscovered for more than an hour, officers estimated.
Once firefighters arrived, it took them 1 1/2 hours to free the car's unconscious passenger. She was sent to a nearby hospital--along with two firefighters and a police officer who needed injections to counteract multiple stings. One firefighter reportedly fainted after being stung. In all, 11 firefighters were stung.
The coroner's office identified the driver of the car as Dandy B. Sutphin, 46, of Torrance, who was declared dead at the scene.
The passenger, identified by the California Highway Patrol as Josephina Pinosa, 40, of Torrance, improved Monday night to serious condition at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital. She was reported to have suffered abdominal and chest injuries and a concussion.
Judging from the heat of the car's exhaust parts, the CHP estimated that the accident occurred at 5:40 a.m.
CHP officers and firefighters concluded that the car had swerved from one of the middle southbound lanes just before the Edwards Street overcrossing, had hit the shoulder at the outside edge of the freeway and had dived over the side and 30-40 feet down a 100-foot, 30-degree freeway embankment. CHP officers, who found no witness to the accident, said they did not know why the car swerved.
The car apparently rolled slightly while airborne, slid on its side and struck its roof squarely against an 18-inch-thick trunk of a eucalyptus tree. The impact forced the roof just behind the windshield all the way to the seat on the driver side but left space on the passenger side for the woman to survive, firefighters said.
The first report of the accident came at 7:03 a.m. from a security guard at the nearby Westminster Mall.
The CHP, police and rescue crews arrived to discover an angry colony of bumblebees that had been living in the tree and had been aroused by the collision.
As paramedics began working to stabilize the unconscious survivor and rescue crews fired up their power tools, a second colony of bumblebees rose up from nearby to join the fight.
"They were just attacking like jets coming off an aircraft carrier," said Battalion Chief Allen White of the Westminster Fire Department. "You'd see them off a distance gathering, and then they'd come in again."
He said the paramedics had stabilized Pinosa and were administering oxygen and intravenous fluids, "and they couldn't back up. They just took the stings and kept working. We had guys getting stung for an hour and a half."
White said county pest control officers and a beekeeper were called to the scene, "but their equipment was ineffective against the bumblebee. . . . The bumblebees don't lose their stingers. They can punch you five or six times times without ever leaving you."
White said one of his firefighters was stung 12 times. Most, he said, were stung on the eyebrows, under the eyes, at the back of the neck, on the backs of the thighs and on arms and head.
Yet, two firefighters who were in the thick of it from beginning to end were not stung at all.
White said one firefighter, trying to fight back, killed 50 bees and didn't make a dent in the attack force.
Still, he said, he didn't think the bees slowed the rescue: "The guys just kept working. It was miserable."
Fire department Capt. Arthur North said that even without the bees, the rescue was extraordinarily difficult because of the position of the victim and the car.
"Very frankly, this has been about as bad an extraction as I've ever been on, and I've been here 20 years," he said.
He said the car was lying on its passenger side and partially wrapped around the tree. The woman was wedged between the driver's body on top and her door at the bottom.
Rescuers had to cut the roof free from the rear of the car, then pull the car away from the tree to get room to pull the victim out the rear.