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COLUMN ONE

Against a tide of steel

On Southland freeways, the numbers -- and the physics -- can mean death for those on foot. The end often comes in a blinding rush.

December 11, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

He didn't know it, but when John Tun stepped from the Honda Accord onto the shoulder of Interstate 5, he entered a realm where flesh and blood are no match for the kinetic fate dealt by the freeway.

As Tun's wife and two children huddled in the back seat, he and a friend examined a flat tire near Santa Clarita. It was about 1:40 a.m., too dark to see broken bits of vehicles scattered about. Too dark to see the Toyota pickup bearing down on them.

"He didn't have a chance," said Tun's widow, Rumchoul Ok.

Ok heard a scream. The car's side window exploded. Tun, 27, was dragged 150 feet. His friend, Thoung Pok, dropped to the ground, her body shattered. The driver, who is serving time for vehicular manslaughter, kept going and later told authorities she thought she hit a pole.

Freeways course through California's landscape like raging rivers, each with its own danger level based on flow and volume, hidden hazards and seemingly safe eddies that belie swift undertows.

The 405, wide and powerful as the Mississippi; the Pasadena Freeway, one treacherous serpentine canyon after another; the 5, furious and full from bank to bank; the 15 over Cajon Pass, a crushing waterfall of speeding cars and 18-wheelers.

Falling out of the raft -- finding oneself on foot on the freeway -- is a primordial fear endemic to Southern California's car culture. It's a horror almost everyone has witnessed, accidents waiting to happen: the middle-aged couple huddled around a callbox; the man talking on a cellphone in the fast lane behind his disabled SUV, cars and trucks flowing around him as if he were a boulder; the family outside a broken-down van, Dad under the hood, Mom herding the kids away from traffic.

Meeting one's maker as a pedestrian on a freeway occurs with surprising regularity. About 1 in 10 freeway deaths is a pedestrian.

Last year in Southern California, 81 pedestrians, ranging in age from 14 to 83, were struck down on freeways -- 14 of them on the 5 through Los Angeles County, the region's most unforgiving highway.

The circumstances that land people in this forbidding environment over the years range from the prosaic (involved in a fender-bender, stopping to switch drivers) to the bizarre.

What was a naked man doing walking on the Golden State Freeway? What are the odds that another naked man would be hit on the 105 just three months later? Why was a 91-year-old woman pushing a shopping cart on the 10?

The man who said goodnight to his 53-year-old wife can't explain how she ended up hours later walking on the Antelope Valley Freeway three miles from their home. The man who stood up in a convertible to remove his shirt probably would have waited if he knew he'd be blown onto the 15. And the 22-year-old skateboarder who decided to cross the 10 near downtown might have reconsidered had he known what awaited.

For some, including John Tun of Long Beach, destiny arrives with a flat tire.

"Before, I didn't drive. My husband drove me everywhere," his widow said. "Now I have to. But I only take regular roads. The freeway scares me."

Seeing the freeway's power up close shatters any doubt of its danger. Behind the wheel, ensconced in a metal cocoon and lulled by the radio, one's sense of threat is muted by familiarity and a feeling of control.

To someone on foot, the freeway reveals its true self. It is alien, industrial, violent. Roaring engines, shifting transmissions and rolling rubber wrack the brain stem. The air is sweet with gasoline and oil. Eyes tear up processing the constant motion. Asphalt and dirt coat the tongue.

"Rule No. 1 out here: You never take your eyes off the traffic," said Tim Hernandez, a tow truck driver who plies the freeways, a rolling trauma center for stranded motorists.

Hernandez, 37, drives for the Freeway Service Patrol, a free, government-funded service. With his muscled build, short-cropped hair and wrap-around black sunglasses, Hernandez looks like a commando on patrol. His is a dangerous job that earns him combat pay: a few extra bucks an hour and $50,000 in life insurance.

Hunched down inches away from a torrent of rushing vehicles, Hernandez is a study in focus, even when some knucklehead driving by shouts "Look out!" hoping to see him flinch.

Sometimes he wades into the fray, as he did one recent evening when he stopped traffic on the 605 with nothing more than his outstretched arms as a tow truck pushed a disabled bus to safety.

Once, while removing lug nuts from a flat tire on the 91, Hernandez spied a car drifting onto the median and heading straight toward him.

"I could see he was yakking on the phone," he said of the driver. "I thought, I hope he notices me."

He didn't. Hernandez dived under the jacked-up vehicle's front end. The car flew by, nearly clipped the jack and crashed into the center divider.

Hernandez's wife wants him to quit. His mother and young daughter make it three.

"We're kind of like the Green Berets of tow truck drivers," he said. "You see it all out here."

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