Two people were killed and 27 were injured in two chain-reaction pileups Wednesday during heavy fog on the Golden State Freeway near Gorman.
With visibility cut suddenly to just two feet in the Tejon Pass, 30 to 40 cars and 10 to 15 big rigs smashed into each other on the southbound side of Interstate 5 about 65 miles north of Los Angeles. Across the freeway, on the northbound side, about 10 cars slammed together.
The accidents about 12:30 p.m. closed the state's major north-south freeway for hours and caused the deaths of a trucker who was crushed in cab of his rig and a woman who was pronounced dead on arrival at a Santa Clarita hospital.
"It was so foggy you couldn't see nothing," said Pete Hand of Durand, Okla., a motorist caught--but not hurt--in the pileup on the southbound interstate.
Letitia Burton, a teacher from Mountain View, and her 12-year-old daughter also were heading south on the freeway when the weather turned 'extremely foggy, scary foggy," Burton said.
Their 1989 Plymouth minivan smacked into a black car directly ahead. Seconds later, a U-Haul truck hit them from behind.
"There were people walking around, cars all crumpled, we could smell gas," she said. "I just feel we were really blessed to be alive. Angels were watching us."
The wreckage was massive. Mangled cars littered the freeway, and a cluster of big rigs was sprawled across the southbound lanes, some twisted but still upright, others on their sides. On a nearby shoulder, the twisted hulks of two burnt trucks smoldered.
The northbound lanes of the freeway were opened within a couple hours of the accident. But the southbound lanes remained closed into the evening, causing a backup of several miles. Drivers stood around the wrecks, shivering in the rain and occasional snow that hindered the cleanup. Some motorists and police officers gathered near a burning truck in an effort to stay warm.
One family huddled in blankets, the younger of two boys clutching a teddy bear.
Fog is common in the Tejon Pass, which rises to 4,144 feet along the Golden State Freeway through the Tehachapi Mountains. A cold front moved through the area Wednesday, combining cool air and moisture to produce intensely heavy fog, weather officials said.
Visibility "drops real fast up there," said California Highway Patrol Officer Rick Miler. "It starts raining and all of a sudden, boom, there's fog."
Details of what set off the chain-reaction wrecks on both sides of the freeway remained sketchy late Wednesday.
In the southbound lanes, said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Mark Savage, "There was an accident and other vehicles could not avoid that and there was a pileup."
More than a dozen big rigs and several cars formed the main cluster of wrecks on that side, officials said.
Near the front, the driver of a truck carrying wood planks slammed head-on into a milk truck, Savage said. The lumber truck driver, in a rig marked by a brown and yellow sign from J & J Trucking of San Diego, was killed. His body was pinned for five hours in the cab, officials said. His name was withheld pending notification of his family.
A 25-year-old woman also involved in the southbound crash was taken to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Santa Clarita, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.
In another big rig traveling south, Albert Rodriguez, 11, and his father were near the front of the pileup.
"We saw these sticks on the road," Albert said, apparently referring to wooden planks, "and everyone started stopping. And then everyone started crashing into each other."
Hand, on vacation from Oklahoma with his wife, said he was driving about 35 m.p.h. and several car lengths behind another car when "this pickup came up from behind and walloped the stuffing out of us." Other vehicles, he said, then rammed into the pickup, which banged repeatedly against his car.
At the back of the cluster, a big rig carrying 1,000 bags of kitty litter smashed into the back of another truck carrying lumber. Both trucks caught fire.
"I saw him up ahead," said the driver of the truck carrying the kitty litter, Edgar Gacobo, 35, who was not hurt. "I put my brakes on but I slid right into him."
The injured were taken by ambulance and helicopter to hospitals stretching from Lancaster to Northridge. Six of the injured went to Henry Mayo Newhall, 11 to Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, four to Northridge Hospital Medical Center and six to Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.
The crashes marked the state's second major fog-related chain-reaction pileup this year. On Jan. 15, in a series of eight rapid-fire accidents, more than 70 vehicles piled into each other on California 99 between Livingston and Selma, killing two people and injuring more than 60.
The pileups near Gorman were not the only accidents on Interstate 5 on Wednesday. Stretching back to the Kern County line were a series of seven accidents in which four people were injured, Savage said.
Times staff writers Michael Arkush, John Chandler and Phil Sneiderman, and correspondent Maki Becker contributed to this report.