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Crash Kills 1, Snarls Freeway Traffic

December 20, 1998|SUE FOX and HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTLAKE VILLAGE — A gasoline truck overturned on the westbound Ventura Freeway and exploded Saturday afternoon, engulfing the road in flames, killing a Thousand Oaks motorist and injuring four others.

All lanes of the freeway near Lindero Canyon Road were closed for several hours, backing up traffic in Ventura and Los Angeles counties for miles during one of the year's busiest shopping days.

California Highway Patrol officials said all westbound lanes of the Ventura Freeway between Lindero Canyon and Westlake Boulevard would be closed for about 24 hours to clean up the gasoline and to repair the badly burned roadway. Two eastbound lanes near the accident were reopened at 5 p.m. Saturday.

The 12:55 p.m. crash occurred when a Chevrolet Blazer entering the freeway at Lindero Canyon Road lost control on wet pavement and fishtailed into a Chevron tanker. The gasoline truck then swerved to the left, rolled onto its side and slammed into the center divider, said Dwight McDonald, a CHP spokesman.

The truck exploded in a fireball, spilling nearly 9,000 gallons of gasoline across both sides of the freeway. Flames from the burning fuel arched more than 100 feet into the air, sending up a giant plume of smoke.

The driver of the white 1997 Blazer was killed, and his two brothers, who were passengers in the vehicle, were injured.

The victim was identified as Zaki Gordon, 22, of Thousand Oaks, CHP Officer Frank Sansone said.

Gordon died at the scene after a rescue attempt by his brothers and an unidentified male motorist failed. "They attempted to remove the brother from the vehicle, but due to intense heat and flames they were forced to retreat," Sansone said.

Gordon's brothers, Yani, 11, and Adam, 14, were taken to Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Sansone said. The boys were treated for minor injuries and released Saturday night, a nursing supervisor said.

The unidentified good Samaritan, a 19-year-old Van Nuys resident, was flown with burn injuries to UCLA Medical Center, where he was treated and released, Sansone said.

Chevron officials identified the driver of the gasoline truck as John Legans, 48, of Lancaster. Legans, who was able to telephone his supervisor from the scene to report the accident, was taken to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Woodland Hills where he was treated for cuts and abrasions and released, hospital spokeswoman Lisa Kort said.

Dozens of firefighters from Los Angeles and Ventura counties battled the blaze, leaving the charred shell of the Blazer and the ashy remains of the tanker in a sea of snowy foam. The entire body of the tanker had virtually disintegrated; only its shattered axles were still recognizable.

The freeway was shut down in both directions for about four hours, causing a massive traffic backup that stretched more than 5 miles in each direction, CHP officers said.

"It's a mess," said Jim Hansen, a California Department of Transportation superintendent assessing road damage. "We'll be out here all night."

Gasoline from the spill poured into storm drains and seeped into nearby Triunfo Creek, authorities said. The flames scorched the freeway so badly that the asphalt may need to be replaced, Hansen said.

The traffic jam forced thousands of motorists onto back roads, snarling local arteries in Westlake Village and surrounding towns. Drivers hunched over maps looking for a way out of the bumper-to-bumper crawl.

"It's been backed up to about Calabasas," said Kambiz Hajinabi, a weary motorist heading home to Santa Maria, as his truck idled amid glowing brake lights on a highway offramp near the accident. "I'm just tired from the traffic."

The crash and subsequent freeway closure didn't stop most shoppers from reaching The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks.

"I've been here a couple of hours and it's extremely packed," Shaw Brusven, a mall spokesman, said late Saturday afternoon.

A few merchants and shoppers complained about long commutes to reach the shopping mecca, three hours in some cases, but Brusven said a majority of consumers come from nearby cities such as Moorpark and Simi Valley.

"It's possible there are people who are not getting here but there aren't people who are stuck here," he added.

Brusven said a routine receipts report by the mall to be released Monday may indicate whether the crash had any effect on sales.

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