Four people were killed and two were critically injured in a fiery, three-car crash Friday night on Highway 101 south of Windsor, authorities said.
Three unidentified adults and a toddler were killed, CHP Officer Barbara Upham said.
A young child was pulled from the burning Honda Civic sedan by passers-by, and a woman, who was driving, was rescued by firefighters, authorities said.
The child was flown by helicopter to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento in critical condition with burns. The woman was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, also in critical condition with burns.
"It was horrible," said witness Ivan Castro, 26, of Ukiah, who stopped near the wreck to try to help. "It was just horrible."
The accident happened at about 6 p.m. as rush-hour traffic slowed just north of the Airport Boulevard overpass, Upham said.
A Mitsubishi coupe driven by Ryan Karr, 26, of Windsor rear-ended the stopped Civic at about 70 mph, Upham said. Karr did not use his brakes, she said.
"Witnesses said the Civic burst into flames immediately upon impact," Upham said.
A third vehicle also was involved in the crash.
Karr, who was not hurt, was questioned and released by the CHP. Upham said alcohol was not believed to be a factor in the crash.
A woman driving the third car complained of pain, Upham said.
Other drivers stopped, including a truck with a water tank and hose that were used to try to extinguish the fire.
Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Dave Thompson, who was in the area at the time, tried to pull the driver from the car but was forced back by the heat, Sheriff's Lt. Bruce Rochester said.
Firefighters arrived and used extrication equipment to remove her, Rochester said.
The unknown passers-by already had removed the child, he said.
The accident happened as cars rolled to a stop in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Castro said.
He recalled seeing the Mitsubishi speed by and thinking the driver would not have time to stop.
Castro said he pulled to the side and grabbed a fire extinguisher from a boat he was towing to try to put out the fire, but the extinguisher malfunctioned.
The deputy arrived and starting batting the flames with a jacket, he said.
Then the water truck stopped. Witnesses rolled out a hose and tried to douse the fire.
"Everybody did what they could," said Castro, a PG&E meter reader. "It was just so hot all around the vehicle."
Bob Dempel, another witness who stopped to help, described the scene.
"There were six or seven brave young men, big young men, they had their jackets off and they were beating the car with their jackets and pulling at it with their bare hands," he said. "The car was hot, burning, they must have been burnt. They didn't care, they just kept attacking that car."
Dempel, a grape farmer returning from Ukiah to his Larkfield home, said he was southbound and about even with the car on the northbound side when it burst into flames.
He pulled over and rushed across, he said. The driver appeared to still be moving. People were shouting that a child was in the back seat. Dempel tried several times to call 911 from his cell phone, but the line was busy, he said.
The young men broke the windows with some kind of pry bar. They used the bar to try to wrench the steel shell of the car off to get to the occupants. The men finally pulled "this little body out of the back seat, not a stitch of clothing on it," Dempel said.
Rescue vehicles began arriving on the scene.
"It was brutal, it was brutal," Dempel said.
Upham said it was the worst crash in Sonoma County since 2005, when two separate accidents killed four people each.
Meanwhile, the northbound lanes of Highway 101 were closed and traffic was reduced to a one-lane bypass under the Airport Boulevard overpass.
Southbound lanes remained open, according to the CHP.
Authorities said the highway could be closed for six to eight hours after the crash.
Firefighters placed a large red tarp over the car that caught fire. The other two damaged vehicles, a Mitsubishi and a white Honda Accord, were in the median strip.