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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Life-and-Death Tale of Freeways and Fate

July 08, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

At a few minutes past 3 p.m. on April 30, a Thursday afternoon, Daniel V. Jones, 40, a hotel maintenance worker from Long Beach, drove a gray pickup truck onto a transition loop from the Harbor Freeway to the Century Freeway, parked it, dialed 911 on a cellular telephone and spoke to police, while simultaneously shooting several rounds from a gun through the roof of his truck.

Except for a dog, he was alone.

At approximately 3:30 p.m., maybe 25 miles away, Jack Nusbaum, 38, a construction company employee from Whittier, was operating a yellow, 26-ton heavy equipment loader at a job site just off the Riverside Freeway, crushing rock.

He also was alone.

At precisely 3:38, Jones got out of the truck. In the middle of the freeway, he unfurled a large, hand-lettered banner. It read: "HMOs Are in It for the Money!! Live Free, Love Safe or Die."

Helicopters flew overhead. TV cameras captured Jones making an obscene gesture, climbing back inside the truck.

Hundreds of thousands of cars were at a standstill.

At 3:48, Jones' truck caught fire.

Two minutes later, he took his life.

And, in so doing, by some miraculous quirk of fate, he accidentally saved Jack Nusbaum's.

*

On her way home from a doctor's appointment, Barbie Nusbaum was also alone.

She had music on her car radio, not the news. Otherwise, she would have known what was happening at the interchange of the 110 and 105, and what was tying up traffic on every L.A. freeway.

She didn't have her cell phone with her, so she couldn't call home to ask if everything was all right.

"I'm glad I didn't," she says. "I would have panicked."

Stuck in gridlock, she would have been unable to do anything but fear for her husband's life.

For at a few minutes past 4 o'clock, Jack Nusbaum felt something go wrong with the engine of his loader.

He got off to check it out.

"I was picking up a little overtime," he remembers. "I had the next day off. I just wanted to get a few more things done."

At the job site near Anaheim Hills, he was accustomed to being by himself, crushing stone into gravel.

Very few others came around. Jim O'Neill, one of the bosses, did sometimes, on days when he passed out paychecks.

Nusbaum was alone when the loader ran over him.

It rolled down a hill, all 26 tons of it. Then it rocked back, crushing Nusbaum a second time.

Pinned underneath, he couldn't call for help, because nobody was there.

Just cars going by on the freeway.

"So he was left for dead," his wife says. "He wouldn't have been found until the next morning. No way he could have survived that long."

For most of his adult life, Nusbaum had worked as a silk-screener. It was just a year ago February that he made a job change, deciding to try his luck at construction.

Now he was crushed under 26 tons.

During the first 30 minutes, "I mostly thought about my family. And I guess you could say I got a little closer to the Lord."

Like his wife, Nusbaum was oblivious to the fact that TVs throughout Southern California were tuned in to a frightening incident up the freeway.

Daniel Jones had just committed suicide.

Bomb squads were rushing to the scene. Just before killing himself with a shotgun, Jones had ignited a Molotov cocktail. His clothes had caught fire, and he tore them off.

It would be hours before the traffic could move.

Which is why Jim O'Neill got off the freeway.

*

Thursday will mark 10 weeks since Nusbaum's narrow escape. He was released from rehab a few days ago, and is walking with a cane. His pelvis and diaphragm were crushed. So was his wrist. He had broken ribs, a punctured lung and a good HMO, one hopes.

To help with medical bills, there's a Jack Nusbaum Fund, care of Sanwa Bank, 2041 Durfee Ave., South El Monte 91733.

It was out of sheer fate that a co-worker drove past the job site and saw a loader where it shouldn't be. Nusbaum called out to O'Neill, who then called for help.

All because of Daniel V. Jones.

Barbie Nusbaum calls it a miracle.

"Is that right?" her husband asks. "This is the first I've heard of it."

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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