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Dump truck driver in fiery Santa Rosa crash reported brake failure

The driver of a dump truck that caused a fiery 10-vehicle pileup Monday morning while hauling debris from Santa Rosa's fire-ravaged Fountaingrove neighborhood told investigators his brakes failed, police officials said Wednesday.

However, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Chad Heiser said investigators have yet to rule brake failure as the official cause of the wreck, which left seven people injured - three critically.

The accident has slowed cleanup from October's wildfires, as every truck in the local debris removal effort had to undergo brake inspections.

Around 200 trucks hauled debris from burned lots in Sonoma County Wednesday, down from about 500 trucks on the road Monday before the 9:25 a.m. accident torched six vehicles, said Rich Gioscia, a vice president with ECC, a Burlingame-based government contractor working to clear burned residential lots.

ECC suspended cleanup Monday at the request of the Army Corps of Engineers to perform brake inspections on every truck in the fleet and review safety protocols with drivers. Hauling operations resumed Tuesday but won't be back to full capacity until the end of the week, Gioscia said.

The crash at the intersection of Mendocino Avenue and Fountain Grove Parkway is being investigated by the Santa Rosa Police Department with help from the California Highway Patrol.

The speed of the vehicle, the weight of the load in the truck and what led driver Francisco Alberto Rodriguez, 45, of Sunnyvale to lose control are still unknown, Heiser said.

Rodriguez had a valid commercial driver's license, was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and had only been working for a few hours at the time of the incident, Heiser said. He is cooperating with police and told detectives in his initial interview that he lost his brakes coming down the hill.

In terms of commercial and moving violations, “the only thing we know for sure is that the dump truck went through a red light,” Heiser said.

The three Sonoma County residents who were critically injured in the accident remain in the intensive care unit at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, according to family and hospital officials.

Two of the victims, Linda Holden, 64, of Healdsburg and Cheryl Strong, 72, of Windsor, have had their conditions upgraded from critical to fair, said Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Vanessa DeGier.

Cheryl Strong underwent surgery on Wednesday afternoon, said her husband, Bill Strong. “She came out of it pretty good, but she's still in an induced coma. … But the doctors seem to think that she's headed in the right direction.”

Holden's husband, Ralph Holden, said Wednesday that his wife is “definitely getting better” and was able to talk a little bit Wednesday. Hospital staff is attentive and another surgery is planned for Friday.

Barbara Schmidt, 76, who's 2017 Ford F150 was the first vehicle struck by the 2009 Kenworth dump truck driven by Rodriguez, remains in critical condition with little improvement, said Schmidt's spouse, Nikki Winovich.

“We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode,” Winovich said.

Winovich said that Wednesday she visited the lot of the home she and Schmidt lost in the Tubbs fire and saw many dump trucks in and around the Fountaingrove neighborhood. Their home was located on Riebli Road, just north of Fountaingrove.

With hundreds of dump trucks hauling hundreds of thousands of tons of debris from Fountaingrove alone, local residents have raised concerns about safety.

On Wednesday, Santa Rosa police officials launched a special traffic enforcement operation at the intersection of Fountain Grove Parkway and Mendocino Avenue. Police officers will be monitoring traffic and looking specifically for red light, speeding and lane violations.

Santa Rosa Police Lt. Rick Kohut said the special enforcement detail, which runs until Feb. 14., was partly prompted by citizen complaints. Kohut said that prior to Monday's accident, such complaints led to a similar operation on the other side of Fountain Grove Parkway, at Brush Creek Road.

Kohut said residents were complaining about dump trucks driving on Brush Creek, which is prohibited. He said efforts are being made to improve signs making it clear where trucks can and cannot drive.

On Monday after the crash, at the request of federal officials overseeing the cleanup, ECC installed electronic signs on Fountain Grove Parkway urging truckers to use low gears on the steep hill, and to lower speeds to 25 mph.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nrahaim. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish. Staff Writer Kevin Fixler contributed to this report.

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