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41 Hurt in 198-Vehicle Smashup

Early morning fog, slick roads and speeding combine to litter the Long Beach Freeway with wreckage.

November 04, 2002|Jeff Gottlieb and Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writers

By the time the last of the 198 vehicles had piled into each other Sunday, the Long Beach Freeway looked like the site of a demolition derby.

The massive chain reaction, which resulted in two major pileups, began at 6:45 a.m. as motorists were driving too fast through unusually dense fog, according to the CHP. Even the officers were amazed that no one was killed.

Forty-one people were injured, nine of them critically. Most of those taken to nearby hospitals were treated and released.

It was a mixture of fog more common to the Central Valley and the traffic of Southern California freeways.

Motorists told of being blinded by the fog, suddenly ramming into a vehicle in front of them or being rear-ended.

As Jennifer Ratin headed to the Long Beach Airport for a business trip to Dallas-Fort Worth, the fog became thicker and thicker.

Traffic slowed, then stopped. A car clipped her on the left. She looked in her rearview mirror and saw another car speeding toward her, as if the driver had no idea the vehicles in front of her had stopped. She grabbed the steering wheel and steeled herself.

"He hit me like I've never been hit before," Ratin said.

Her Mercury Mountaineer was pushed across two lanes and turned in the opposite direction, stopping inches from a road sign. "Once I got out of the car I still could hear cars hitting each other," she said.

James Acosta was driving the '94 Buick Riviera he had bought three weeks ago. He started hearing the "booms" of cars smashing into each other when he hit an oil slick. He said his brakes locked and he crashed into the guardrail, then was sideswiped. "It was like a whirling dervish," he said, still shaken hours later.

Around him, cars and trucks in the southbound lanes faced every direction, gnarled, crushed and bent. The smell of gasoline filled the air. A blue semitruck sat in the middle of a 20-car pileup, its windshield wipers occasionally giving a swipe. A Toyota Camry was smashed into another semi.

Along a stretch of more than a mile, workmen dragged away pieces of fenders and car body parts.

Tow truck drivers lined up along the freeway like cabdrivers at a fancy hotel, waiting for fares. One tow truck even had to drag off another tow truck that apparently had been caught in the crash.

There were five minor accidents on the northbound side of the freeway when careless drivers slowed to look at the opposing lanes, officers said.

Soon after, both sides of the freeway between the Artesia and the San Diego freeways were closed. By Sunday evening all lanes were back in use.

Because of live television coverage, the wreckage became an instant tourist attraction. Long Beach officers eventually began ticketing sightseers who walked up closed freeway ramps to stroll among the debris.

It took most of the day for officers to talk with all those involved and for motorists to have their cars towed away or drive away those that still ran.

The CHP late Sunday was still trying to piece together the sequence of events. CHP officials said there were two major pileups. The first occurred near the San Diego Freeway.

The second, which started a short time later, took place farther north, near Del Amo Boulevard.

CHP Capt. Cliff Williams said the fog, which cut visibility to 100 feet, was among the worst he had ever seen. Motorists agreed. "You couldn't see another car in front of you," said Rafael Lopez of Upland.

Those caught in Sunday's pileup said the fog mixed with oil that leaked onto the freeway made the road nearly impossible to navigate.

Drivers said that even when they couldn't see what was happening they could hear cars around them smashing into each other.

Sergio Moran had been driving his semi to the Port of Long Beach to deliver diesel fuel.

His truck escaped with minor damage to the front fender after an out-of-control car came rocketing at him from the side.

Moran had hit the brakes so hard that they burned the back tires.

He looked at the pile of wrecked cars in front of him, which he had missed by a few feet. "It's unbelievable," he said. "These people walked away."

Teresita Alvarez, 36, of Downey was driving to work. She pulled into the center divider when she saw a pileup.

Cars slamming into each other sounded "like aluminum cans, crashing and crashing and crashing. I ran along the center divider yelling, 'My God! My God! My God!' All I could think of were my five kids," Alvarez said.

Michael James stood in the middle of the freeway, taking down information about the Oldsmobile Cutlass he said had smashed into his car.

James said that he was driving about 40 mph because of the fog.

He started slowing and then started skidding.

"Next thing I know, I'm hit from the rear end" and he crashed into the car in front of him, James said.

His mouth smashed into the steering wheel with enough force to bend the wheel.

He had bought his '87 Cadillac less than a week ago and hadn't transferred the insurance. "It was a pretty car too," he said with a shrug.

Lupe Gomez, 54, was one of the lucky ones.

After a Honda cut in front of her, she swerved to the right and made a quick left to miss a pile of smashed cars.

"I screamed," she said, holding out her hand, which still was shaking. The 2003 SUV she bought three weeks ago was untouched.

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