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2 dead, 12 hurt when big rig loses control in La Cañada Flintridge

April 02, 2009|Andrew Blankstein and Scott Kraft

A big rig descending Angeles Crest Highway barreled through a busy intersection in La Canada Flintridge on Wednesday, struck several vehicles and smashed into a shopping complex, killing two motorists and injuring 12 people -- three of them critically.

The double-decker car carrier apparently lost control at Foothill Boulevard and Angeles Crest and plowed into a bookstore whose patrons had fled. Momentum carried the truck -- loaded with several vehicles -- into a nail parlor, pinning the owner against the truck.

The intersection was littered with the wreckage of five cars, including a red compact containing a man and woman from Palmdale who authorities said died at the scene. Their vehicle was struck in the intersection and pushed 150 feet, officials said.

The truck's driver suffered minor injuries and was taken to a hospital, authorities said. The cause of the wreck was under investigation. A passenger in the truck was not hurt.

The accident occurred in a bustling retail district lined with boutiques and restaurants. The town of nearly 21,000, about 15 miles northeast of downtown, is home to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Melissa Watkins was working at the coffee bar in the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse and spotted the big rig heading toward the building. She said the rear of the truck was jackknifing as it bounced off obstacles.

"The hood was up, it was kind of already airborne," she said. "It hit the curb, it went boom. We all ran out the side door."

Witnesses said the truck punched through a wall and came to rest in the back of the nail parlor. Watkins said she saw the shop's owner trapped near the front of the rig before she squeezed out the side.

The truck's back end protruded from the front of the building, its rear emergency lights still flashing. A sport utility vehicle remained perched atop the trailer.

The intersection was the scene of a similar accident Sept. 5, when a truck from Idaho carrying 78,000 pounds of onions lost its brakes coming down the steep incline from the San Gabriel Mountains. The truck rammed into several cars in a parking lot just west of Wednesday's accident. One person was hurt.

La Canada Flintridge officials have been feuding with the California Department of Transportation since last year, complaining the intersection is notorious for runaway trucks.

In a letter sent to the state a month ago, city officials urged Caltrans to ban trucks from using the mountain route as a shortcut to the L.A. Basin. Further, the city suggested signs be erected to warn truckers of the steep grade.

Mayor Laura Olhasso released a statement Wednesday night, repeating the city's frustration.

"We are outraged that our numerous demands to Caltrans to immediately address the significant safety issues of out of control trucks on Angeles Crest Highway were ignored," she said.

Caltrans officials could not be reached for comment.

Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mike Brown said one of the critically injured was airlifted to a hospital. Four others were transported to local medical centers.

Emergency workers labored to pull motorists from damaged vehicles and combed through debris in the stores.

Brown said firefighters were assessing the bookstore, saying the extensive damage appeared to render the structure unstable.

The accident occurred at 5:49 p.m., when the shopping center was at its busiest.

Sandi Susersky, 41, a hairstylist at B.S. Hair Co., two doors down from the bookstore, said she was the only one inside when the accident occurred.

She could smell the truck's burning brakes.

"I thought we were having an earthquake the way things were shaking," she said. "I fell out of my chair."

The squealing of brakes and the sound of crunching metal shocked patrons at the Hill Street Cafe.

Waitress Brandi Sjostrom said she heard the crash and ran outside to find a broad area of wreckage.

"I was pretty shaken up, I felt really nauseous," she said. "I've never seen anything like that."

She said diners returned to their tables, but many were so shaken they left their meals on their tables and went home.

--

andrew.blankstein @latimes.com

scott.kraft@latimes.com

Times staff writers James Wagner, Joanna Lin and Julie Cart contributed to this report.

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