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1 Dead, 14 Hurt in North Hills Crash

A van carrying mentally disabled adults tips over after being struck by a pickup truck, pinning victims underneath as it slides into a police car.

October 16, 2003|Hector Becerra and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

One man was killed and 14 other people were injured Wednesday when a pickup truck slammed into a van carrying mentally disabled adults in North Hills, flipping the van onto its side and pinning several passengers beneath it, authorities said.

The van, which slid into the front of a police cruiser, was carrying passengers home from a Mission Community Hospital program about 2:15 p.m. when it was struck at Hayvenhurst Avenue and Nordhoff Street, authorities said. Officers in the damaged patrol car and other rescuers scrambled to pull passengers out from beneath the van.

"The two officers saw bodies flying out of the van right in front of them," said Los Angeles Police Lt. Art Miller. "Along with the other officers, they were able to pull three people out from under the van."

The accident stunned witnesses with its violence.

"It sounded like a train wreck," said David Martinez, 18, who saw the collision from his front lawn. "I could see the van on two wheels, about to come down on its side. I could see two people under the van. One guy looked like he was really crushed. He was really messed up."

Authorities did not release the identities of the victims. Police said the dead man was one of those trapped under the van. He was described only as being in his 30s.

Two other victims were taken by helicopter to a local hospital in critical condition, but were expected to survive, authorities said. The remaining injured included other passengers in the van and the elderly driver of the pickup truck, according to Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey. Their injuries ranged from cuts to broken bones. The officers in the cruiser that was struck suffered minor injuries.

Police said that it could take weeks to determine how the accident occurred, but that it appeared that one of the vehicles ran a red light. Authorities said the hospital van was carrying 11 passengers and traveling north on Hayvenhurst when it was struck by the pickup, which was heading east on Nordhoff. The patrol car was stopped at the light on Nordhoff, heading west, when the van slid into it.

The officers in the cruiser radioed for help. They, along with eight arriving officers, were able to lift the van and remove the three people trapped beneath it.

As 11 ambulances and two helicopters raced to the scene, rescue workers removed van passengers who had become trapped in their seats. Paramedics set up a triage area on tarps laid out on the lawns of nearby homes. Several of the patients, because of their disabilities, were unable to communicate well with firefighters, Humphrey said.

"Many of them were mute to us. They were developmentally disabled with special needs, and officers and firefighters took tremendous pains to give them comfort and reassurance," Humphrey said. "Some couldn't verbalize," but many of them appeared to be in pretty good shape, he said.

The intersection is equipped with overlapping phase signal lights -- lights that stay red in every direction for a full second when going through their cycle, according to Capt. Greg Meyer, commanding officer of the Valley Traffic Division. The system is designed to lower the risk of drivers running red lights.

Meyer blamed the accident on "a combination of speed, not paying attention and the running of a red light on the part of somebody."

Nordhoff is known for its speeding automobiles, police said. In the last three years, there have been 27 major collisions along the thoroughfare, including seven fatalities, Meyer said.

"There have been 64 fatal collisions on Valley streets so far this year, and we still have two months to go," Meyer said.

Times staff writer Michael Krikorian contributed to this report.

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