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Truck driver: Willits bypass collapse ‘worst noise in the world' (w/video)

David Phelps won’t soon forget the sound of wood, steel and concrete crashing down from a raised section of the Willits Highway 101 bypass project.

Phelps, a fifth-generation Redwood Valley resident, recalled driving a concrete truck into the site Thursday afternoon when “I hear this horrible noise. I can’t describe this noise. This noise is the worst noise in the world you could hear.”

About 150 feet of a partially built viaduct collapsed Thursday east of Willits near East Valley Road, injuring five workers and putting a halt to work along that section of the $275 million bypass. State inspectors have begun an investigation into what went wrong.

Phelps, a trucker for Nor-Cal Recycled Rock and Aggregates in Willits, was driving one of nine trucks that day hauling concrete for two giant boom devices that were making a continuous pour along the viaduct. He had just arrived with his 10th load of the day when the structure gave way.

He could see people on top of the viaduct running to escape the collapse. In terms of fear, he said, “they were like me. They didn’t know how much of it was going to come down.”

A portion of the viaduct “came down fast and hard,” he said. The sound of the collapse was loud enough to be heard back in town.

Afterward, it took Phelps a minute to make sense of what had happened. First, he wondered if there had been an earthquake. Next, he mistook a huge dust cloud rising from the debris for smoke but soon realized there was no fire.

Phelps called 911 and ran out to East Valley Road to help draw the attention of emergency personnel as police officers, sheriff’s deputies and fire and ambulance crews arrived.

“I absolutely can’t believe that nobody got killed on that thing,” he said. “I’m not much of a religious person, but I think God was looking out for everybody at that time.”

When the structure gave way, two workers were briefly trapped under the rubble. One was freed by emergency responders and flown to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for treatment. The other worker freed himself and refused treatment.

Three other workers suffered varying degrees of injury.

Investigators from Caltrans and the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health have begun seeking answers to what happened at the viaduct. Such investigations can take weeks or months, officials said Friday.

This particular viaduct is designed to pass over wetlands along a future section of Highway 101.

Phelps, 59, is the son of a former Redwood Valley fire chief. A trucker for 35 years, he has hauled rock and concrete for the new bypass since the project began about two years ago. As such, he occasionally had delivered concrete to this particular section of viaduct for more than a year.

To the best of his recollection, the viaduct’s columns were completed last fall. Those columns remained standing Thursday, he said.

Phelps was at the collapsed section for only about 15 minutes before he was directed to take his still-loaded concrete truck back to the yard. He left the site not knowing the fate of all the workers there.

When he learned that all had survived, he said, “I was really thankful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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