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Storm Strains Nerves, Limits

Rescuers free motorists stranded in snow near Big Bear. Concerns over flooding and mudslides grow, but no major damage is reported.

January 09, 2005|Cara Mia DiMassa, Steve Hymon and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

As stormy weather continued to pound Southern California on Saturday, about 170 people were freed from cars near Big Bear where they had been trapped for up to 15 hours in deep snow, several of the state's major arteries were closed and rescue workers pulled two people from raging streams.

Serious concerns remained about how the water-logged region would hold up with storms expected to continue at least through this evening. Although there appeared to be no major flooding or mudslides, the day was not without drama.

Rescue workers used snowplows, snow cats and snowmobiles to free people from a 6-mile stretch of California Highway 18 in the San Bernardino Mountains after a combination of snow, rain, sleet and fog created a 200-vehicle logjam.

Although many of those stuck along the route spent the night in their cars, there were no major injuries. Those trapped bundled up or ran car heaters to stay warm.

Near Rosemead, rescuers plucked a woman from a wash after water carried her nearly a quarter of a mile. San Bernardino County firefighters used a bulldozer to rescue a man from a swollen waterway in Lytle Creek. Several of the state's major arteries were closed because of snow, rock slides and weather-related accidents.

Southland cities along the coast received from 1 to 4 inches of rain, while mountain regions reported as much as 8 inches. Santa Monica, for example, received 2.4 inches while Claremont got 3.2 inches.

The California Highway Patrol reported 430 accidents as of 6 p.m. in Southern California -- double last Saturday's total for the same period.

Forecasters expected rain to continue most of today before diminishing late tonight with another burst due late Monday and continuing into Tuesday. A flood watch remained in effect for Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and flash flood warnings remained for San Bernardino County.

The worst problems occurred on a stretch of road known as the Arctic Circle, where Highway 18 follows an arc around a precipitous cliff dropping into the Bear Creek drainage. According to the CHP, the troubles began Friday night.

Many of the motorists driving to Big Bear Lake for the weekend had no chains on their tires, ignoring a posted sign. As rain turned to snow, cars began skidding and getting stuck.

"I was a nervous wreck because of the fog, because of the wind, because of the rain, because of everything," said Veronica Rodriguez, 32, of La Mirada, who waited 13 hours to be freed. Somewhere along the way, she said, the chains had come off her tires.

"It was a dead stop. Nobody was moving. Nothing was happening," said Jay Marmow, 25, of Foothill Ranch, who was in Rodriguez's car.

Trapped at 11 p.m. Friday, the group, which included Rodriguez's 13-year-old daughter, used a portable DVD player to watch "Napoleon Dynamite" twice, "Princess Diaries," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "White Chicks." They shared Doritos and half a bottle of water. About noon Saturday, a rescuer on a snowmobile picked up Rodriguez's daughter and a young friend. The three women left in the car walked half a mile before they reached a snow cat.

As stranded motorists waited to be rescued, they traded information with each other about the storm as if playing a giant game of telephone.

Victoria Berry, 22, of San Pedro was en route to her sixth annual ski trip with friends Jason Charnich, 29, of Los Angeles and Jesse Still, 25, of Torrance when her Honda Civic got trapped in the snow.

"We couldn't go anymore. The wheels started spinning. We had to stop," Berry said. The three friends donned ski clothes, got out blankets and started drinking beer to pass the time.

"Next time," Still said, "we'll take a truck."

It wasn't until about 2 a.m. Saturday that authorities realized how serious the problems on the highway were. "When the first units arrived, it looked like a parking lot," said Capt. John Hernandez of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

As sleet whipped through the area, about 100 rescuers used snowmobiles to take motorists to snow cats, which then ferried them, eight at a time, either to Big Bear Lake Dam or Snow Valley Mountain Resort. "We worked it from both sides and met in the middle," Hernandez said.

Tracey Martinez, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said three people were taken to local hospitals with breathing difficulties.

Although most people were finally able to free their own vehicles, some had to be towed, and about 20 to 30 cars were still stuck Saturday night. The 6-mile stretch of Highway 18 was to remain closed indefinitely.

Elsewhere, the storm caused the usual problems created when the Southland gets soaked.

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