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Bus Hurtles Over Freeway Divider; 2 Die

September 20, 1996|FRANK WILLIAMS and RICHARD SIMON and EFRAIN HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — An MTA bus headed north on the Hollywood Freeway jumped the center divider during the evening rush hour Thursday and plowed into southbound traffic, plunging down atop a motorcyclist and a pickup truck and triggering a chaotic pileup that left two dead and seven injured.

Ten vehicles, not including the bus, were involved in the 5:10 p.m. accident, which scattered debris over a quarter-mile and jammed traffic for hours in both directions, authorities said.

John Martinez was on his way home from work at a North Hollywood casting agency and had just passed the bus, he said, when his Isuzu Rodeo was clipped by a car that had swerved to avoid the bus as it suddenly careened toward the center divider.

"I was spinning out of control, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the bus going over the wall," said the shaken Martinez, 46. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God, what other cars am I going to hit?' It was awful. I just pray for the other people."

The bus, which carried no passengers at the end of a shift in the Universal City area, had just passed Burbank Boulevard in the fast lane on the California 170 portion of the Hollywood Freeway, north of the Ventura Freeway.

It may have begun its fatal slide when the driver swerved to avoid striking a car that cut in front of him, California Highway Patrol officers and MTA executives said.

After crossing the carpool lane and crashing over the concrete divider, it landed on the motorcycle and a pickup truck, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said. A maroon minivan then slammed into the side of the bus and became trapped underneath it along with the pickup truck, as numerous other cars crashed into one another in an attempt to avoid the wreckage.

The motorcyclist--whose twisted, bright-red sport bike slid out from under the bus and came to a rest against the divider--was pronounced dead at the scene, as was the passenger in the pickup, said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Jim Wells.

After trying for more than an hour to extricate the driver of the pickup, who was still alive, firefighters used a crane to hoist the bus and dragged the truck and van out from beneath it.

Six firefighters then put the driver on a rolling stretcher and whisked him down the center of the freeway to a waiting emergency helicopter.

The man, whose name was not released, was in critical condition at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. The driver and a passenger in the van, a man and a woman in their 30s, were listed in serious condition at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

Two others involved in the pileup were treated at local hospitals and released, and one victim was treated at the scene, fire officials said. The bus driver also required treatment at the scene for minor injuries, police said.

At least 50 city firefighters, six rescue ambulances and one air ambulance were called in to handle the crash.

The bus driver, 22-year-old Sergio Blancarte of Los Angeles, was a part-time employee who had begun work with the agency nine months ago and passed his probation period in April, MTA spokesman Steve Chesser said.

After working in the Universal City area on Line 152, Blancarte was on his way back to the agency's Division 8 facility in Canoga Park, Chesser said.

According to Chesser, Blancarte told police and MTA officials that he was headed north when he lost control, perhaps because a car cut in front of him.

The bus came to rest with its rear bumper still atop the battered divider, blocking three of the four southbound lanes.

Blancarte was still being questioned at the scene late Thursday. Police and MTA officials both said he would undergo routine drug and alcohol tests, but police emphasized they were still investigating and no one had been charged.

To become a bus driver, applicants undergo 90 days of training, including six to eight weeks of driving instruction.

As investigators began measuring skid marks and interviewing witnesses, Ramon Sanchez of Arleta arrived to look for his sons. He had received a call at home, he said, telling him that his boys--Alvaro, 17, and Alberto, 13--had been taken to a hospital, but he didn't know which one. So he wandered the southbound lanes and asked police and firefighters for help.

"All I know is that they were in an accident," Sanchez said. Alvaro "was going to work and my other son was accompanying him."

Police and fire officials declined to say whether the two boys were among those injured.

By late evening, the southbound lanes of the freeway remained closed. Only the two slow lanes on the northbound side were reopened, and traffic continued to crawl out of the city.

On the southbound side, it took some drivers more than 90 minutes to make it to an exit, and rush-hour traffic on nearby surface streets was jammed as well.

Times staff writers Eric Slater and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fatal Crash

An MTA bus with no passengers on the northbound Hollywood Freeway jumped the median, landing in the southbound lanes. Two people, one on a motorcycle, were killed and at least seven others were hurt, including the bus driver, who suffered minor injuries.

1) MTA bus traveling northbound in the far right lane loses control, crossing into the carpool lane and jumping the center divider, landing on the southbound 170.

2) Brown pickup truck traveling southbound is struck by bus, lodging beneath the back end. Passenger is killed; driver is airlifted to trauma center.

3) Southbound maroon van strikes midsection of the bus, which has come to rest across three southbound lanes.

4) As bus leaps divider, it lands on top of southbound motorcyclist.

Source: Times staff.

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