LOS ANGELES — The chain-reaction crashes that piled up nearly 200 cars on the Long Beach Freeway likely could have been avoided if drivers had simply slowed down when they hit foggy conditions, California Highway Patrol officials said Monday.
The crashes, which left a five-mile section of the freeway looking like an auto junkyard, shut down the highway for 11 hours Sunday. Eight people suffered critical or serious injuries in the accidents that took place within minutes along the one-mile stretch of freeway.
Motorists reported driving into fog so thick that it reminded some of being on an airliner as it travels into the clouds.
“In that weather condition, we’re sure if drivers had drastically reduced their speeds, this could have been avoided,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Luis Mendoza.
A total of 198 cars and trucks were involved in the crash 25 miles south of Los Angeles, with a total of 41 people hurt. Nearly 150 vehicles, torn and tangled, ended up in one pile, with nearly 50 others crammed together a half mile away.
After the injured were treated or taken to five area hospitals, tow trucks began hauling away the remains of crumpled vehicles, including some that ended up on top of others.
Scores of emergency personnel and stranded motorists were fed by the Red Cross. Portable toilets were brought in as some people waited by their cars. Others sat on the road away from the heavy smell of leaking fuel.
With visibility reduced to only 50 to 100 feet “the fog moisture caused the roadway to become slippery so that braking vehicles slid into others,” Mendoza said.
“All of a sudden you see a wall,” William Carter of Long Beach said of the fog resembling a cloud. He told the Long Beach Press-Telegram he skidded to a stop among other cars without a collision, but soon his car was hit from behind.
“It was crazy unreal,” Joe Bozek of Upland said of watching cars sliding about before his pickup was hit in the rear.
CHP Capt. Cliff Williams said, “Today’s accident is living testimony of the importance to slow down when there is fog like this.”
Seven Long Beach fire engines were sent to the scene, along with a rescue truck containing a “Jaws of Life” device firefighters used to cut into crumpled cars and rescue trapped motorists.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,’ said Jan Andriese, a 13-year firefighting veteran who was on his way to work when he saw cars smashing into each other in front of him.
“I checked as many cars as I could, to the front and the back,” Andriese said. He found two trucks leaking fuel, and joined with other motorists to channel it into roadside dirt so it could be absorbed.
Fire Department spokesman Wayne Chaney said Andriese also helped stabilize a driver with broken ribs while other rescuers worked to get the man out of his car.
“Everyone knew exactly what their role was,” Chaney said of the emergency response worked out in disaster drills. “We were able to give patients the best care, take them to the right hospital and do it in a timely manner.’