CHP: Dump truck in Santa Rosa crash was overweight, in need of brake repairs

A runaway dump truck hauling fire debris that injured seven in a fiery crash in Fountaingrove last February was overweight and only five of its eight brakes worked properly, CHP investigators revealed this week.

The lead contractor on the Fountaingrove cleanup disputed the findings Friday. The truck recently had its brakes serviced and was carrying a load within its allowable weight limits on the day of the crash, according to ECC, a contractor on the government-directed cleanup of debris from the October wildfires.

Santa Rosa police are set to release a full report on the 10-vehicle wreck in the coming days. In the meantime, a specialized unit with the California Highway Patrol assisting in the investigation has found the four-axle 2009 Kenworth heavy-duty truck, owned by Flores Trucking Co., of Vallejo, was overdue for service and above its Department of Transportation-set weight limit.

Santa Rosa police have yet to release the exact weight of the truck or confirm the truck’s load capacity while the CHP report on the truck’s mechanical function is reviewed further. The details are critical to Santa Rosa police investigators attempting to determine what caused the Feb. 5 crash at the intersection of Fountaingrove Parkway and Mendocino Avenue, which sent three people to the hospital with critical injuries.

ECC believes its subcontractor’s truck was below its maximum allowable weight, which it states was 65,000 pounds. Relying on measurements taken within days of the crash, an official with the Burlingame-based company said the truck had a total weight of 63,540 pounds, meaning it was nearing capacity but had room to spare.

The burned contents of the truck measured 36,000 pounds when they were weighed after the crash, said August Ochabauer, ECC’s vice president of operations. Records from Republic Services, which operates the Sonoma County Central Landfill, show the truck weighed ?27,540 pounds unloaded. Combined, the figures indicate the truck was within legal limits, Ochabauer said.

The discrepancy between CHP’s assertions, provided by Sgt. Ed Clarke of the Golden Gate Division, and weights furnished by ECC could not be resolved Friday. A spokesman for Santa Rosa police did not return multiple messages left about the forthcoming crash report.

“We think all the weight information before shows that the truck was not overweight,” said Ochabauer. “We don’t know the full contents of the truck and some of the truck melted … but that’s information from a month and a half ago, and I’ll be interested to see how they got to that in their report.

“Until we get the report and actually look at the data,” he added, “we’re not able to say who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Truck weight data in and out of the Sonoma County landfill, documented by Republic Services and obtained through the California Public Records Act, shows the truck involved in the accident dropped six loads of fire debris between Jan. 22 and Jan. 27. Its weights never exceeded its purported 65,000-pound maximum, with its last measure - its heaviest - coming in at ?60,680 pounds.

Ochabauer also said he understood the truck had undergone routine brake adjustments in the weeks preceding the accident. After the violent crash, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested ECC temporarily halt cleanup efforts to review safety and perform brake inspections on its fleet of debris trucks.

The driver of the truck, Francisco Albert Rodriguez, 45, of Sunnyvale, had a valid commercial driver’s license and was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to police. He had worked only a few hours when he descended a steep hill and went through a red light into oncoming traffic. He later told officers his brakes failed.

A man who declined to give his name Friday answered a number listed for Flores Truck Co., but denied subcontracting on the debris cleanup efforts, any involvement in the truck accident or knowing the driver.

The three critically injured patients have all been released from the hospital. One, Barbara Schmidt, 76, was discharged within the past two weeks. Her wife, Nikki Winovich, said Schmidt nearly died on more than one occasion, is paralyzed from the accident and remains in a rehabilitation center.

“It’s been hellish,” said Winovich. “It’s been a life-changing event for us.”

The afternoon of the crash, ECC installed two electronic signs along Fountaingrove Parkway urging debris haulers to reduce speeds to 25 miles per hour. Cleanup operations resumed the next day, and returned to full capacity by week’s end.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336.

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