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Killer Winter Storm Moves Out of Southland

December 18, 1987|PATT MORRISON and ERIC MALNIC | Times Staff Writers

A winter storm that cudgeled the Southland with snow and wind began to squeeze itself dry on Thursday, moving slowly southeast after layering mountains and foothills with more than two feet of snow in places.

An 8-year-old girl and an 80-year-old woman died as a result of faulty heating systems, fire officials said.

The deaths bring the storm toll to eight, including three traffic accident victims and three fishing boat crew members who drowned in the Pacific.

Snowplows Worked Steadily

Rescuers slogged through snowdrifts near Tehachapi on Thursday after about 60 people were stranded in their cars for up to six hours. And an elderly Gorman man whose car stalled on the way to his mailbox was safe after holing up overnight in a garage.

Truckers and other drivers who had been sidetracked Wednesday on Interstate 5 by snow and screeching winds got back on the road Thursday. The California Highway Patrol began escorting the first convoys of vehicles over Tejon Pass about 2:15 p.m., as snowplows worked steadily to keep the roadway clear.

"It's starting to come down again real good, but they've got a good layer of sand down and the cars are coming through OK," CHP Officer Jerry Berger said. "It's a piece of cake if you like snow."

Although the freeway was opened to all traffic late Thursday, the CHP was recommending that northbound motorists take the Ventura Freeway past Santa Maria, then get on California 166 east to California 99, just south of Bakersfield.

"They will probably get there quicker if they go through this way," CHP Officer Charlotte Foley said. "There is a really, really long delay" in the escort service.

By late afternoon, all lanes were open over the Cajon Pass on Interstate 15, north of San Bernardino, after a brief closure, and no chains were required.

"But it's still snowing up there," CHP Officer Kevin Haney said. "And whether all that will change is up to Mother Nature."

Died of Smoke Inhalation

In addition to six people who died from the storm's first punch, an 80-year-old Wilmington woman died of smoke inhalation in a fire started by a faulty floor heater, said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Jim Williamson, who noted that a smoke detector would have alerted the woman, whose body was found in the hallway of her home early Thursday morning.

An 8-year-old Imperial Beach girl, Roseanne Keefe, died and her brother and parents were rendered unconscious by what authorities say was carbon monoxide.

Deputy San Diego County Coroner Jack Larkie said the family had turned on the gas wall heater for the first time this winter, and a rag found stuffed into the heater's vent had apparently allowed carbon monoxide gas to build up.

In Cummings Valley, near Tehachapi, "white-out" conditions and three feet of snow trapped 30 or 40 cars backed up single-file along a highway leading into the Stallion Springs development, Kern County search and rescue Lt. Carl Sparks said.

It took a dozen rescuers more than five hours to shuttle out the 60 people, eight or nine at a time, in the heated cab of a "snow weasel," said Sparks, who noted that the last rescue came shortly after 3 a.m. Thursday.

"It was only a few miles from the gate (of the community) but you'd be a Popsicle by the time you got there," Kern County sheriff's spokesman Richard Dixon said.

"They all had their heaters going," added Sparks, and they "didn't panic, which was the main thing."

Some who still could not get home spent the night at the homes of the search and rescue volunteers, Sparks said.

It was still snowing there Thursday, he said. "I'd say within a week they'd be able to get back in and get their cars."

Two men were reported in good condition Thursday after suffering burns when a Good Samaritan effort by Kern County sheriff's deputies went awry.

When high winds and heavy snow blocked the Grapevine on Wednesday afternoon, Dixon said, the search and rescue team led stranded motorists to shelter at a Denny's Restaurant at the base of the grade.

"The power was out, so they brought in portable propane heaters," Dixon said. "Apparently, while they were starting up the heaters, some of the gas started leaking."

Deputies quickly escorted motorists outside, but one member of the team, Brian Dials, 30, was still looking for stragglers when an explosion tore through the restaurant.

Dixon said the blast hurled Dials from the building. Moments later, firefighters found trucker James Douglas Gillihan, 35, hiding in a bathroom attempting to evade the flames that largely destroyed the restaurant, causing about $250,000 damage.

2 Treated for Burns

Gillihan was hospitalized at Kern County Medical Center in Bakersfield with respiratory burns. Dials was treated at another Bakersfield hospital for second-degree burns on the face and hands before being transferred to the burn ward at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital.

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