A dump truck carrying tons of fire debris heading down Fountaingrove Parkway Monday morning barreled through the Mendocino Avenue intersection and slammed into multiple vehicles, injuring six people, catching several cars on fire and sending a massive plume of dark smoke over the northern end of the city.
Fire officials Monday said the injured included two with major injuries. A third suffered moderate injuries and three others minor injuries in the 9:25 a.m. crash.
“He was coming down the hill toward Mendocino and at the intersection he lost control of his truck and ended up colliding with a total of nine other vehicles,” Santa Rosa police Lt. Rick Kohut said.
The scene was a mass of tangled vehicles, which quickly caught fire from spilled fuel. As the black smoke rose high above the area, a series of explosions caused by heat popping the tires of the burning vehicles added to the chaos.
People rushed to help, pulling at least three people out of their cars, including one woman from a burning minivan.
Firefighters called to the parkway at Mendocino Avenue found a widespread scene of destruction cross 250 feet with three areas of burning cars. The fire incinerated the dump truck, three vans and two pickups, said Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Mark Basque. The hulk of the westbound dump truck stopped in eastbound lanes of the Mendocino Avenue overcrossing of Highway 101.
“I started thinking about the dump trucks that have been coming down Fountaingrove and sure enough, we get there and it’s a dump truck,” said Corey Larson, acting fire captain for Rincon Valley who also responded. “There are so many and they’re coming down with a lot of heavy loads.”
In the initial aftermath, three people helped from the wreckage were treated by paramedics on a traffic island in the intersection. Firefighters broke into multiple teams: One group checked the vehicles for people still inside, another cut free two people trapped inside a crushed pickup, and others sprayed water and retardant on the flames.
Fire officials said the two people with major injuries were taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital; one person with moderate injuries and one with minor injuries were taken to Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital; and two people with minor injuries to Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center.
Fire officials said burning gasoline and diesel fuel caused the fire to spread quickly. Special foam was used to control the flames and city public works staff prevented fuel from getting into nearby creeks and the sewer system, fire officials said.
The plumes of black smoke triggered fearful memories of October’s firestorms that scorched entire neighborhoods east, west and north of the intersection at Mendocino Avenue and Fountaingrove Parkway. At the Kaiser medical center, some staff gasped at the billowing smoke and fire.
“Everybody was on edge,” said one Kaiser employee who would not give her name because she was not authorized to speak for the hospital. “My heart just about stopped and I thought, ‘not again.’”
The crash closed the major Santa Rosa intersection for almost six hours. The nearby Highway 101 overcrossing, which connects Mendocino and Cleveland avenues, reopened its westbound lanes late Monday afternoon and the eastbound lanes reopened Monday night.
A Windsor man and his 8-year-old son were stopped in traffic at the intersection when the truck came careening down the hill.
“The guy was really truckin’ — he maybe lost control,” said the man, who would only give his first name, Chris. He had been headed to his office at nearby Kaiser Medical Center. “He hit all of us and then we all smacked into each other. (It was) flames and gas immediately everywhere.”
He grabbed his son and fled to safety from their wrecked Nissan Pathfinder.
The crash spurred spontaneous acts of courage.
A crew of workers helping clear Fountaingrove residential lots as part of ongoing debris removal from October’s Tubbs fire were driving together down Fountaingrove Parkway when they saw the dark smoke. At the bottom of the hill was what one of them described as “stacks of cars” and people yelling for help. They raced to a burning minivan where a woman, her adult son and their small dog were inside.
“They were just screaming to help pull (the woman) out,” said David Ryan, of CVE Corp. “She couldn’t walk and was in pain. We drug her over to the median and then the ambulance came.”
The woman’s son was able to get out on his own, but was injured. The dog also escaped.
“Less than 30 seconds after we got over to the curb there her whole car lit up,” said Ricardo Aparicio, also of CVE Corp. “If we would have shown up any later than we did that lady would have been in a lot worse trouble.”
Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley firefighters had the fire under control by about 10:15 a.m., although some vehicles continued to smolder and burn. AMR paramedics in two ambulances and a Russian River paramedic crew in a third ambulance that had been at nearby Kaiser at the time of the crash also responded.
A similar, but less serious, crash occurred at the same location Jan. 16.
In that incident, the driver of a loaded dump truck headed down Fountaingrove Parkway about 10 a.m. found his brakes weren’t responding. As he got toward the bottom he used the truck’s emergency brake to slow before reaching Mendocino Avenue, said Santa Rosa police Sgt. Dan Hackett.
But the truck couldn’t stop before rear-ending another vehicle stopped at the light, Hackett said.
The driver of the smaller vehicle complained of pain but didn’t appear to have serious injuries. It wasn’t clear from the police report whether the crash closed any part of the intersection, but Hackett said that was possible.
On Monday, initial reports to emergency dispatchers indicated the truck’s brakes may have failed as it came down the hill. It was carrying a full load — believed to be 15 tons — of fire debris from the Fountaingrove neighborhood devastated by the October fire.
Burlingame company ECC has a contract from the state’s Office of Emergency Services to clear fire debris, and Monday’s driver worked for a hauler doing work for a subcontractor, according to August Ochabauer, ECC’s vice president of operations. He said he believed the truck, which was outsourced to Hayward-based 18 Trucking via San Francisco subcontractor Anvil Builders, was carrying “a proper weight” — typically no more than 15 tons.
A spokesman for Anvil said details were still being collected Monday night.
The vice president of 18 Trucking, Gustavo Deleon, said five to eight independent haulers are on the fire debris project day-to-day, but he could not confirm whether one of those trucks was involved in the crash. He said the individual owner-operators are responsible for maintaining their truck’s 90-day state inspection certifications.
Ochabauer said all trucks working on the state contract, awarded Jan. 12, had undergone ECC review at that time to confirm each possessed the state-mandated certification.
Police, with the aid of CHP investigators, will examine what’s left of the truck for signs of mechanical failure, including the brakes, as well as looking at speed, the size of the load and possible driver error.
The driver, whose name has not been released by police, was not injured. He was cooperating with officers, Kohut said.
Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossman at 707-521-5412 or at email@example.com. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.