UNIVERSAL CITY — A city maintenance truck driver lost control on the southbound Hollywood Freeway and jumped the center divider Thursday afternoon, triggering a chain of collisions that left one man dead, eight people injured and shut down a major Los Angeles artery during the evening rush hour.
"The carnage was intense--it resembled a war zone," said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey. "Even our veteran paramedics were shocked by the sheer force of this collision."
When it was over, 11 vehicles had gotten tangled in the mess. One man died, two were critically hurt and six suffered lesser injuries.
A Los Angeles city Bureau of Street Maintenance cherry picker was headed south in the slow lane near Universal Center Drive about 2:35 p.m. when the driver lost control, swerved across all five southbound lanes and hit at least two vehicles, said California Highway Patrol Officer Rhett Price.
The maintenance truck then crashed over the center divider and flew into the northbound lanes, he said.
On that side of the freeway, the truck slammed into at least seven vehicles, including a white minivan operated by the Los Angeles County Informational Services Division. The minivan driver, a man believed to be about 30, suffered massive trauma and was pronounced dead at the scene.
Price said there are still many questions to be answered, including what exactly caused the driver to lose control and how the truck came in contact with the 11 vehicles it hit.
"We don't know if it happened while he was landing on top of [the van] or if the van struck him while driving; it hasn't been determined," Price said.
The truck landed on its side, its cherry picker boom crushing the hood of a white Chevrolet Cavalier, he said.
The Cavalier's driver, described as a middle-aged woman, was trapped under the yellow maintenance truck for about 45 minutes. Paramedics treated the woman with oxygen and fluids while a 40-ton mobile crane was used to steady the wreck as firefighters used two sets of rescue equipment to disassemble the car around the injured woman, Humphrey said.
Fifty-five firefighters took part in the rescue efforts, he said.
A Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter landed on the freeway and airlifted the woman to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she was still listed in critical condition late Thursday, officials said.
Another man in critical condition and two people with minor injuries were taken to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, Humphrey said. Two others with minor injuries were taken to St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank and another two patients went to the North Hollywood Medical Center.
Ray Trim, 37, of Montrose, who was returning from lunch to his job at Universal Studios, said he watched in horror as the huge truck sailed over the center divider, right at him.
"The amazing thing was seeing this huge semi-truck coming over the freeway; it was very surreal," he said.
"I thought I was dead. I thought this was it, but somehow I was able to get around it."
Trim thinks his car was hit by the white van. But he wound up on the right shoulder, unharmed, and approached the van, telling the dying driver help was on the way.
"He was looking at me with his blue eyes," Trim said. "That image, that's really a tough one. It's quite a reality check, it shows you what a fine line we're all sort of walking on," he said. "You never know."
A shaken Veronica Tavira, 28, of Gardena, said she was very lucky she wasn't involved in the crash.
"I was the car behind the white [Cavalier]," she said. "One minute later and I would have been there instead of the white car.
"I was going north on the 101 and saw the truck . . . he jumped over the fence and jumped over the cars," she said. "It was a terrible experience."
Tavira, who was driving a red Ford Festiva said, "I would have disappeared under the big truck."
Onlookers flocked to overpasses to see the crash. Motorists behind the wreckage were trapped on the closed freeway. Many parked their cars in the miles-long traffic jam and strolled around the freeway to kill time, knowing they weren't going anywhere for hours.
The Hollywood Freeway's northbound lanes were expected to be shut down until 2 o'clock this morning as investigators with the CHP's Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team worked to determine the cause of the crash, officials said. As of 10 p.m. Thursday, three of the five southbound lanes were open; the other two were expected to reopen at 2 a.m. today.
During the evening commute, northbound traffic was backed up well beyond the four-level interchange in downtown Los Angeles, more than 10 miles away. Southbound traffic stretched northward onto the 170 portion of the Hollywood Freeway, Price said.
As motorists poured off the freeways, trying to go around the scene, they created traffic jams on surface streets that locked some of them into place for two hours, Price said.
He said the driver of the city truck will be tested for alcohol in his blood, which is routine. The driver, who was among the injured, was not cited.