FRESNO, Calif. — In a horrific matter of minutes along a fog-swathed stretch of Highway 99 south of Fresno, two people were killed and 41 others injured Saturday morning in one of the worst pileups in central San Joaquin Valley history.
It involved 108 vehicles — and, investigators said, a man suspected of driving while drunk.
The first impact happened just before 8 a.m. in the northbound lanes just south of American Avenue. Even as rescuers worked to help the injured, more cars and trucks crashed into the growing pileup.
Survivors described a harrowing chill of silence broken every so often by the crash of steel on steel.
“Our firefighters could hear other crashes happening in the distance,” said Cal Fire/Fresno County Fire Capt. Mike Bowman. “It definitely affects the psyche of the firefighters.”
By the time it was over, the wreckage extended from American Avenue about a mile south toward Clovis Avenue, investigators said.
“It doesn’t look real,” said California Highway Patrol officer Paul Solorzano. “It looks like it’s out of a movie, until you see all the damage.”
“And then you see all the people standing around on the shoulder wondering how they’re going to get home.”
Those killed were a 5-year-old boy and a 26-year-old man identified by investigators as Travis Rogers of Selma. Their bodies were recovered early in the investigation in separate vehicles. The name of the boy was not being released until authorities were able to talk to his family.
Rogers’ family was notified of his death at 10:30 a.m. by the Fresno County Coroner’s Office, said his step-grandfather, Jim Clifton of Selma.
Rogers was a truck driver who worked for his father, Doug Rogers. He was unmarried and had no children. On Saturday afternoon, the CHP arrested a 61-year-old man from San Antonio on suspicion of misdemeanor driving under the influence, but it was unclear what role he played.
“It appears he was in a collision at the front of this,” said Scott MacGregor, chief of the CHP’s Central Division. But, he said, investigators have not determined whether the man triggered the pileup, or was just one small part of it.
Authorities did not identify the man, who was treated at an area hospital and was to be taken to Fresno County Jail, the CHP said.
Officials won’t say that fog was the sole cause of the pileup, but it was certainly a factor. Investigators will be looking at a number of other elements, including how fast people were driving on a weekend morning when traffic was moderate, but visibility was minimal.
The accident — which involved 18 big rigs — is one of the worst pileups ever in the central San Joaquin Valley in terms of the number of vehicles. The most deadly, weather-related accident happened the day after Thanksgiving in 1991. Fierce winds stirred up a huge dust storm that reduced visibility on Interstate 5 in western Fresno County to zero. Five pileups involving 127 vehicles left 17 people dead.
On Saturday, 41 people were injured — some critically — and 39 were transferred to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno and Clovis Community Hospital.
Dazed drivers and their passengers — those who emerged with only aches and pains — milled around and tried to call family and friends on cell phones. The pungent smell of spilled fuel and oil carried through the chilly air.
Not only were clusters of mangled cars and trucks strewn along the three-lane route, but there were gouges in the concrete and shards of broken glass everywhere.
Among those who escaped unscathed were Tom Jackson, 59, and his wife, Mildred.
Jackson said they left their Hanford home at 7 a.m. to drive to Fresno for an 8:30 a.m. training seminar for his wife, an elementary school teacher’s aide. But once they drove onto Highway 99 at Fowler Avenue, Jackson said, the visibility dropped 50 to 100 feet.
They slowed to 50 mph and stayed in the slow lane. Just north of Clovis Avenue, he said, vehicles had stopped or were stopping. He slowed down more — and they heard crashes to the left and behind them.
They pulled off the road. By 12:30 p.m., they were still waiting for permission to drive away.
“All we want to do is get off 99 and go home,” Jackson said.
A swarm of help responded to the pileup, including 13 paramedic ambulances from throughout southern Fresno County, seven Fresno County fire engine crews and a ladder truck and battalion chief from the Fresno Fire Department.
Emergency crews not only were handling the gnarled shells of vehicles and shattered debris, but faced the cleanup of toxic materials including gasoline, diesel, battery acid and other automotive fluids.
Traffic was backed up for miles on the highway, a major north-south connector through the Central Valley. But late Saturday, authorities said they hoped to have the northbound lanes reopened by 9 p.m. By 6 p.m., all but four vehicles had either been towed from the scene or driven away. By 9:30 p.m. the lanes were reopened.
November is the typical start of the fog season in the Valley. Jeff Barlow, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Hanford, said Saturday’s fog “is not uncommon for us this time of year.”
“This wasn’t a widespread fog event, just a narrow band less than five miles in width but stretching from Fresno to Corcoran,” Barlow said. “It’s the kind of isolated, patchy fog that we get here in the Valley.”
More fog is forecast in the next few days, he said.
“We’re expecting patchy areas of locally dense fog,” Barlow said. “It settles in during the nighttime or early morning, and usually burns off by the midday hours.”
No matter how much authorities every year caution motorists to drive carefully during fog season, the combination of speed and thick mist have given Highway 99 a treacherous history.
“The Central Valley has had significant events like this in the past, unfortunately,” said MacGregor of the CHP. “It’s been several years since we’ve seen an accident of this magnitude.”
The fog appeared to settle in quickly Saturday morning and then began to dissipate, MacGregor said. Two hours before the accident, he said, visibility in the area had been reported to be about two miles.
After the first collision, the CHP received calls saying visibility had diminished to 200 feet. Bowman of Cal Fire said by the time he arrived at the accident scene from Clovis, there was almost no visibility.
Bowman said the accident could have been worse. Only two vehicles caught fire, and both were quickly doused by motorists using fire extinguishers.
“It’s unknown how many lives they saved,” Bowman said.
Officers from two of the CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Teams — one from the Fresno-based Central Division, the other from the Coastal Division — worked their way along the pileup. They took notes and photographs and talked to drivers and witnesses.
As the day wore on, some people boarded Fresno Area Express buses for shelter and were taken to a nearby building, where they could wait for rides, or for information on their cars. The American Red Cross provided assistance to those who needed a place to stay or other services.
Some described how the accident brought them face-to-face with death.
Danny Cardona, 43, of Duarte in Los Angeles County, had stopped his pickup because of the collisions in front of him.
Suddenly, he was struck from behind. Then a vehicle ran into the driver’s side of his truck. And then a back corner of his truck was clipped.
Cardona said he escaped injury and jumped wrecked cars to help rescue a driver whose car was pinned under a tanker truck. He said he borrowed a knife to cut the victim free from his seat belt and then watched as the man was taken away by ambulance, apparently with major injuries.
Still inside the vehicle, he said, was the boy who had been killed.Bee staff writer Denny Boyles contributed to this report. The reporters can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or (559) 441-6330.