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Pasadena Freeway crash leaves good Samaritan neighbors in shock

Residents near treacherous curve are used to aiding crash victims, but failed attempt to rescue girl in burning car was especially heartbreaking.

August 28, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez and Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times
  • Salvador Martinez, 36, of HIghland Park, one of the first responders at the scene of the crash, was burned when he tried to save the little girl.
Salvador Martinez, 36, of HIghland Park, one of the first responders at… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Residents along this perilous stretch of the Pasadena Freeway say they've seen and heard it all: screeching tires, shattering glass, mangled cars and drivers crying out for help.

Only a fence and a concrete divider separate their neighborhood from three narrow, twisting lanes of the southbound 110 Freeway. Crashes are a backdrop to their lives, especially during the rainy season, and offering help to distressed drivers has become second nature.

Still, residents were struggling with the tragedy that unfolded before their eyes Friday evening, just north of York Boulevard, when an SUV rear-ended a stopped Nissan Altima, causing it to burst into flames. Inside the burning vehicle was an 11-month-old girl, strapped into her car seat. Her mother, unable to reach her amid the smoke and flames, screamed for help.

Salvador Martinez, 36, was in his backyard installing a fly trap when he heard the crash, then the screams. He ran toward the wreck — much as he has done ever since he was a boy growing up in the neighborhood. When he reached the car he saw a curly-haired girl in the back seat.

"My only goal was to get her out," Martinez said.

As motorists sat paralyzed in their cars, he tried to open the passenger's side door, but it was jammed. Someone broke the window with a baton and Martinez reached inside and yanked on the girl's car seat. But the seat wouldn't budge.

Heat seared his arms and face. He could see flames dancing inside the car, near the hand brake, inches from the girl's feet.

His neighbors surrounded the scene, their faces desperate.

Francisco Rodriguez, a factory worker, and his 16-year-old son dragged bucket after bucket of water from their apartment building and tossed it onto the flames. After 17 years of living on the edge of the freeway, he and his family have learned to act fast, even in the middle of the night, when many of the accidents happen.

An upstairs neighbor, Jair Aguirre, 26, ran from his stairwell, barefoot and shirtless, in search of a garden hose. He found one in Dilia Aviña's house next door, but it wouldn't reach the freeway. As he set out looking for a longer one, the heat grew more intense inside the Altima.

Martinez tried to unbuckle the girl's safety belt, but it burned his hands.

"I need scissors! I need a knife!" he yelled at his neighbors.

Someone in the crowd raced to get one, but by the time it arrived, it was too late, Martinez said. The car was engulfed in flames that pushed the would-be rescuers back.

Authorities identified the victim as Leiana Ramirez of Los Angeles. According to the California Highway Patrol, the girl's car had stopped because of a possible flat tire. Both alcohol and drugs have been ruled out as factors, authorities said.

The morning after the crash, Martinez sat on his porch, his blistered arms wrapped in gauze up to his elbows, his voice quiet.

"I don't understand," he said. "Only God knows."

Near the smoke-stained site of the accident, Angelica Frias tended to a small shrine made by residents. She swept away dirt and pulled up weeds. The day before she had rushed through the street screaming, alerting her neighbors to the tragedy. Now, with tears in her eyes, she said nothing had ever shaken her like this.

Over the years, many area residents have viewed the storied roadway with a mix of anger and resignation. They blame the drivers who speed by recklessly, the sharp curves, minimal shoulder space and a lack of warning lights.

Many avoid driving on the highway, which was opened in 1940. It was engineered for up to 27,000 cars a day, all traveling at what designers imagined would be a top speed of 45 mph. These days, its six lanes carry about 122,000 vehicles a day, flying by at more than 60 mph.

Recent accident figures were unavailable Saturday; however, studies conducted by UCLA's Department of Urban Planning, using California Department of Transportation data, have described it as "the most unsafe route in the region due to accidents."

Just north of the neighborhood, the sharp curve surprises many drivers. About a year ago, the California Department of Transportation installed a concrete divider to protect the stucco homes and apartment buildings.

Residents still hope it will reduce the number of cars that barrel through the rickety metal fence, sometimes landing inches from frontyards.

"But what about these poor people?" Frias said "Now they crash even harder than before."

Many residents woke up feeling unusually rattled and helpless on Saturday.

They've all helped with their share of accidents. They've run to get water, juice and blankets, jumped over the fence to pull panicked drivers and passengers out of oncoming traffic. They remember the cars — a van, a truck, a motorcycle — and they remember the faces — a nurse, a priest, a young student.

But this time it was a child.

"A little child," said Aviña, who tried to help on Friday with her garden hose. "And there was nothing we could do about it."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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