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11 Die in Fiery Collision Near Lompoc

Tragedy: Rescuers were unable to reach six men trapped in burning van.

September 11, 1997|SCOTT HADLY and RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LOMPOC — The men were bloodied, bruised. And burned. Yet still they yelled. "Six! Six! Six!"

No one understood. Yet the men kept screaming. "Six! Six!"

Their meaning became clear only Wednesday, the morning after a horrific car crash that killed 11 people on California 1 near Lompoc. By shouting "six," the men had hoped to signal to rescuers that six of their friends were trapped in the smashed wreck of a doomed van.

Trapped--and burning to death.

As survivors and rescuers watched, fire gulped the van. Flames shot 12 feet high. Cans of kerosene exploded. Tires popped and sizzled.

Those inside screamed for help.

But the fire was too fierce. The six could not be saved.

"I can't get it out of my mind," said Charles Powell, a corrections officer at the Goleta jail who spotted the crash on his way home Tuesday night and along with two colleagues stopped to help. "To hear those screams. I've heard them ever since it happened. . . . And the smell. The vehicles and the bodies. It was just haunting."

Authorities said the accident occurred about 10 p.m. Tuesday, when a Ford pickup truck slammed into a Chevrolet van. Eight of the 12 people in the van were killed.

In addition to the six men trapped inside, two men were thrown clear but died from massive head and chest injuries. All three people in the pickup--two men and a woman--were killed as well.

Three men and one woman, all riding in the van, survived.

The impact was so strong that both the van and the pickup crumpled like paper fans, their front bumpers pushed clear into the passenger seats. Then both vehicles burst into flames.

"It was the most gruesome thing I have ever seen in my life," Powell said.

With the victims so badly disfigured, authorities said that identifying them could take weeks, even though several relatives from the San Fernando Valley trekked to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department on Wednesday to report that their loved ones had been in the van.

"They are charred," said Larry Gillespie, senior investigator in the Santa Barbara County coroner's office. "I can get more morbid, but I'd rather not."

By late Wednesday, coroners' officials had identified only two victims, both Lompoc residents who had been in the pickup. They would not release names, pending notification of the victims' relatives.

Their task was made more difficult because the personal effects that usually help identify bodies--wallets, jewelry, clothing and the like--were destroyed in the fire. Only a few charred $1 and $5 bills and some singed cornhusks were identifiable in the twisted wreckage.

Authorities believed that the van's occupants--many of them Mexican immigrants--had spent the day selling roasted corn in Lompoc.

The kerosene they had used to heat the corn fueled the post-crash inferno.

Indeed, the flames spread so fast that witnesses said the road itself appeared to be on fire. Powell and two colleagues--Corrections Officers Richard Davis and Loren Coburn--had to keep pausing in their rescue efforts to drag the bodies of victims who had been hurled out of the van farther and farther from the flames.

The three officers did succeed in rescuing one victim: a woman, later identified as 47-year-old Rosa Hernandez of Canoga Park, who was hanging out the driver-side window of the van, stuck in her seat belt.

For a time, the officers wrestled with the belt, trying to free her. Then, to their relief, the belt burned through. And they pulled Hernandez to safety.

They could not, however, reach the man they heard screaming in the back seat. "There was absolutely nothing we could do to get him out," said Davis, who did not realize until much later that he had suffered second-degree burns on his face and arm in the rescue attempt.

"I know we did something," Powell said. "But right now, I don't feel like it was enough."

Hernandez was transferred to the Sherman Oaks Hospital Burn Center on Wednesday, where she was listed in critical condition. Nearly a quarter of her body was covered with second- and third-degree burns, and she had also suffered a broken arm.

"She opens her eyes, but she doesn't talk," her nephew, Antonio Navor, reported after visiting her.

Survivor David Perez, 31, was in fair condition at Lompoc District Hospital with internal injuries.

Another man, whose name was not released, was being treated for massive head injuries at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital.

The fourth survivor, 20-year-old Poli Hererra, suffered just a few scratches and was released from the Goleta hospital early Wednesday. He told investigators that he had emigrated from Mexico just eight days before the crash. But he could not help them with much else.

"He knew nothing," California Highway Patrol spokesman Jim Everly said. "He couldn't remember anything about it."

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