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77-Car Pileup in Heavy Fog Kills 1

January 04, 2002|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An estimated 77 vehicles, including big rigs and a prison van, collided in rapid-fire crashes Thursday morning on a foggy Kern County highway, killing one person and injuring 15, authorities said.

The chain-reaction wreck, which went on for about 10 minutes, shut down California 58 about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains, which separate the Mojave Desert from the southern San Joaquin Valley.

"It was one for the ages," said Highway Patrol Officer Sterlin Smith. "It was a crash guys like me see once in our career."

The fog, typical for the area, hampered visibility.

"[Visibility] went from 100 feet at one point down to about zero, and it's still there," Sgt. Ted Eichman said in the early afternoon.

Killed in the pileup was Carl Woosley, 52, of Bakersfield, who died when his appliance repair pickup was struck by an 18-wheeler.

Woosley appeared to have hit his brakes hard after the first two collisions on the westbound freeway. A big rig, battling little or no visibility, saw Woosley's vehicle too late to avoid the collision, Smith said. The truck veered into a center divider, but its trailer smashed into the back of Woosley's pickup.

Woosley died at the scene, "possibly from a broken neck," Smith said.

Officers said the pileup could have yielded more fatalities or serious injuries.

"The potential for a greater catastrophe was great," Smith said. Most of the other injuries were moderate.

"The most serious other injuries were . . . maybe a broken arm," Smith said.

There were 15 separate crashes involving the 77 cars. Forty-two cars collided on the eastbound side of the highway; 25 on the westbound side. The eastbound lanes reopened about 5 p.m., hours after the westbound lanes reopened.

Other vehicles involved in the wreck included a California Department of Corrections prisoner van, but no one aboard was reported injured. A Kern County firetruck was involved in a minor-injury accident, Eichman said.

California 58 connects routes that cross the Mojave Desert with highways in the San Joaquin Valley, and is heavily used by trucks.

Nine vehicles collided later in fog on Interstate 5 to the southwest in Tejon Pass, blocking the southbound side.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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