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Dismay, disbelief wracks families of victims in Santa Rosa dump truck crash

Firefighters work to put out a multi-vehicle fire at Fountaingrove Parkway and Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, on Monday, February 5, 2018. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

MARTIN ESPINOZA,

Barbara Schmidt and her longtime friend, Cheryl Strong, were driving south on Mendocino Avenue Monday morning when they approached the intersection at Fountain Grove Parkway — a busy juncture that has seen an endless caravan of dump trucks hauling debris from Santa Rosa’s fire-torn Fountaingrove neighborhood.

Schmidt, 76, lost her home on Riebli Road, just north of Fountaingrove, in the October firestorm. Like thousands of other North Bay residents, she and her spouse, Nikki Winovich, were in the process of having heavy debris removed from their own burned property.

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Government contractors had finished clearing their lot of ash the week before.

Winovich, 54, said Tuesday it was ironic and “horribly unreal” that a dump truck hauling debris from Fountaingrove would smash into the 2017 Ford F150 Schmidt was driving, sending Schmidt and Strong to the hospital with major injuries.

“I’m in disbelief,” Winovich said Tuesday evening. “It’s kind of unbelievable. ... It’s surreal, kind of the same feeling during the fire, like this really didn’t happen.”

Schmidt’s truck was traveling through the intersection and was the first vehicle struck by the 2009 Kenworth dump truck driven by Francisco Alberto Rodriguez, 45, of Sunnyvale.

The impact of the crash sent Schmidt’s truck into a 1991 Ford Explorer driven by Bill Frisbie, 82, of Graton. Schmidt and Strong suffered major injuries and were in critical condition Monday at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Winovich said Schmidt is on a respirator but her condition is improving slowly and “not as critical as last night.”

She said Schmidt suffered internal injuries, a broken leg and some back injuries.

Winovich, a sixth-grade teacher at James Monroe Middle School, said she was at work walking through the office at about 9:45 a.m. when someone asked if she’d heard about the fiery crash.

“We were all just thankful there were no fatalities,” she said.

Then, at 11:15 a.m., Winovich got a call from a nurse in the emergency department at Memorial Hospital telling her Schmidt was hurt in the crash.

Bill Strong, the husband of Cheryl Strong, said he spent the day at Memorial Hospital, where his 72-year-old wife and Schmidt were both in the intensive care unit. He said the doctors and medical staff worked feverishly to save the women, who had been friends for about 45 years.

“It’s horrendous,” the Windsor man said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Like Schmidt, Strong suffered severe internal injuries, he said.

Police told him Schmidt saw the dump truck coming from the corner of her eye and that she tried to brake.

“He said that if Barbara didn’t slam on the brakes, they would have been killed,” he said.

Monday’s accident also left Linda Holden, 64, of Healdsburg in critical condition at Memorial Hospital’s intensive care unit with a fractured pelvis and injuries to her collarbone, ribs, ankle and shoulder, according to her husband, Ralph Holden, 67.

Linda Holden was driving one of five cars stopped at the intersection waiting to turn left onto northbound Mendocino Avenue. All five cars were struck by the dump truck.

With Holden was her son, Chad Carrol, 46, of Healdsburg and her small dog, Little Bit.

Both Carrol and the dog escaped serious injury.

Ralph Holden said his wife’s condition is improving and that doctors plan to operate on her pelvis later this week.

“All the signs are really good right now,” he said, his voice breaking.

“The nurses have been very good and kind and informative.”

According to police, four other people received minor injuries.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.