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Dust Storm Causes I-5 Pileup; 6 Die, 50 Hurt : Traffic: Wreckage north of Coalinga involves up to 100 cars and big-rig trucks. CHP closes 150 miles of road.

November 30, 1991|HECTOR TOBAR and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A blinding dust storm trapped hundreds of holiday motorists on Interstate 5 in the San Joaquin Valley on Friday, leaving at least six people dead and more than 50 injured in a series of chain-reaction accidents, the California Highway Patrol said.

A CHP spokeswoman said as many as 100 cars and big-rig trucks slammed into one another about 2:40 p.m. on the highway approximately 45 miles north of Coalinga.

Every available emergency vehicle in Coalinga and Los Banos was summoned to the scene just north of the Kamm Avenue exit, said CHP spokeswoman Mary Kerr. Emergency crews from Merced and Hanford also were called.

Witnesses described an eerie scene, with burning cars, trailers and smashed trucks lining the roadway. Survivors climbed from their cars, bloodied and covered with dustblown sand.

"The sand was blowing and vehicles were screeching all around," motorist Nick Kudla told the Associated Press. "We could barely see. I've been in whiteouts in snow storms and it was the same feeling. We pulled off the shoulder and kept hoping no one would get us from the back."

The CHP closed a 150-mile stretch of the heavily traveled roadway from the California 46 junction near Bakersfield north to Los Banos because of 40-m.p.h. winds and zero visibility from the blowing dust, the spokeswoman said. The highway remained closed into the evening.

Many other roads in the area were also closed, hampering rescue efforts.

"We're experiencing severe winds," Kerr said. "There are freshly plowed fields out there and the wind is blowing up the dust and the dirt to zero visibility."

Ten hospitals in the Fresno area braced for the arrival of scores of patients. County officials established a command center at the Valley Medical Center in Fresno.

Hospital officials said they expected to treat at least 90 crash victims. One hospital spokeswoman put the death toll at eight.

"We're right in the middle of (preparing for arrivals)," said a spokeswoman at Valley Medical Center. "We're expecting 90 patients as we speak--and maybe more."

A truck driver transporting a load of vegetables from San Francisco to Los Angeles said vehicles were ramming into each other like giant bumper cars when he pulled his 18-wheeler off the freeway. Four or five cars suddenly piled up behind him.

The driver, who identified himself only as James, said he stopped and began to carry moaning and screaming victims to the side of the road. At least 20 people on stretchers were lined up along the shoulder, he said.

"Some were alive, but I think some were dead," said the 63-year-old Los Angeles man. "It was pretty terrible. Never seen anything like this. . . . Far as I could see, maybe four or five cars got burned up. Cars demolished. It's so dusty you couldn't see. . . .

"Two or three cars hit me, turned me around, (but) didn't do any damage to my trailer. But I did see three or four semis burned up."

Other survivors and witnesses gathered at Chevron service station 10 miles away.

Maria Martinez, a cashier at the station, said witnesses told her it was "just gruesome, it was really bad. There were bodies everywhere, cars everywhere, car upon car upon trailer upon truck. . . . The Highway Patrol did not even want to go in for fear of getting in an accident."

Martinez said she was told at least 100 cars were involved in one pileup on the southbound side of the freeway, and another 150 on the northbound side. Survivors of the accident were streaming into Martinez's station with tales of horror.

"There's just cars everywhere. It's just awful. . . . At first I didn't believe it. People were coming in and said it is that bad."

Witnesses told Martinez that at least one diesel truck burst into flames on impact, triggering yet another accident. Dozens of crumpled cars were being towed from the wreckage and dumped at her Chevron station and others in the area.

Stunned and quivering survivors arrived as pale as ghosts--their hair, faces and clothes covered in dust, she said.

"This one man, he was pretty shook up," the cashier said. "He couldn't even talk, that's how shook up he was. He was trying to make words come out. He couldn't do it."

More survivors gathered at the Harris Farms restaurant 20 miles south of the accident site.

"I've never seen anything like this," said restaurant manager Steve Rude. "It's not safe anywhere around here to drive right now. Right now I would estimate the winds are blowing 40 to 50 m.p.h. with severe dust swirling and flowing along with the wind. If you go out there, it's like you're getting hit in the face by a bunch of tiny pebbles."

Rude said one traveler who arrived from the accident scene brought one of the injured to the restaurant, where workers summoned assistance.

"We had a gal come in . . . one of the travelers picked her up on the roadside. She was in shock," said Rude. "It took a while for help to get here. I know the Coalinga Hospital is packed."

Gus Morado, an employee at the Harris Ranch Service Station said that before the highway was closed, motorists headed toward the accident scene were being turned back.

"People described a big-rig getting broadsided by two or three cars," Morado said. "People who got up to where the accident was, there was about an hour wait, and then they had to come back. They (CHP officers) were sending everyone back."

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