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January 12, 2002
Paul Gipe

Tule Fog or Three Strikes and You Could Be Out

You've read about those massive chain-reaction accidents. Miles of mangled vehicles on Germany's autobahn, Italy's autostrada, New Jersey's Turnpike, or California's I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley. Each have had their share.

Fog or clouds of dust and driving too fast for conditions are often given as the cause. But it hasn't happened to you. You shake your head in wonder. What could those people be thinking? Why take such a risk? But it was them, not you. Life goes on.

Two Strikes

Nancy and I have escaped two near misses of what the police antiseptically call multiple-vehicle accidents. One was on I-580 over the Altamont Pass east of San Francisco, when a tractor-trailer--what writers now call "big rigs"--jackknifed in front of us. We were several cars behind and avoided the truck, the cars that had plowed into it, and all the debris flying across four lanes of traffic.

That was enough for us. We didn't need or want to run that slalom again.

But it was not to be. Coming out of a tunnel on the Autostrada in a blinding rain--and if you think we drive fast, you've never been on the Autostrada in the rain--brake lights illumined the gloom ahead. Cars were sliding and slamming into each other. We moved into the fast lane and came to a safe stop. It's then that you really begin to study your rearview mirror. The car following us skidded to a stop.

"Good," you think. But not good enough.

A car came sliding across both lanes and smacked the car behind us. They took the brunt of it and only hit us a glancing blow. Still it was enough to launch us forward. I'd allowed plenty of room between us and the car in front. It paid off. We never hit the vehicle in front and that meant our car was still drivable. Good thing, too.

The people behind us were not so lucky. In the mirror I could see the women passenger screaming and holding her neck. That wasn't the worst of it. Behind them I could see a tractor-trailer tumbling down the medium towards us. I had visions of it rolling over all of us in our little Fiats.

Though there was debris on the road and cars scattered across both lanes ahead of us, there was an opening and we started for it. People were just beginning to get out of their vehicles. We never learned what happened to them. The Italian papers didn't mention it. Must be too common an occurrence to note.

We saw three accidents that day. We were lucky, charmed, cautious, or all three. We came away with little more than stiff necks.

Tule Fog

Tule fog is a killer in Kern County, well, in the entire San Joaquin Valley to be precise. Maybe it's the gods' revenge for ditching, draining, and otherwise industrializing the valley floor. I don't know. But one risks fate when they anger the gods--or they drive too damn fast in the fog.

On Thursday, January 3rd I batted again in the game of life. I don't know how many strikes one gets. I don't think I want to know.

You may have seen a short film clip on the evening news about it, or read a small item in your newspaper something to the effect of "Massive Pileup Near Bakersfield". It was.

Seventy-five vehicles in all. Fifty-five in my group. One dead, eleven injured. Traffic eastbound on Highway 58 through the Tehachapi Mountains--a major East-West corridor--was blocked nine hours. I was stuck in it for only three. Lifeless statistics all.

I am uninjured, the truck undamaged. But the experience scared the beejeezus out of me.

While sitting in the fog I had plenty of time to ponder the cause. I sum it up as too many people, in too many cars, driving too damn fast.

OK. I am no saint. I was following a tractor-trailer whose 35 mph was too slow for my tastes, especially after several vehicles whizzed by us. So I pulled out into the passing lane. Sure you could hardly see the end of the hood, but we're always pushing the limits a little, aren't we?

There was another tractor-trailer ahead of me. I wasn't in a hurry. I didn't crowd him.

Off in the fog, barely visible, there was a flash of brake lights. Then the brake lights flashed on the trailer in front of me. Then I saw some people off to the left leaning over the barrier waving at us. Not a good sign at all. I hit the brakes.

Then the trailer in front began to fish-tail. That's when I knew I was in serious trouble: fast lane, trailer careening to a stop in front of me, concrete barrier to my left, tractor-trailer to my right. Shit!

I could dimly see several vehicles ahead of us bouncing into each other.

He stopped. I stopped. The tractor next to me squealed to a stop.

There we sat. There we waited.

I knew that behind us coming down the hill was a string of Snow Birds in their motor homes, assorted big rigs, and no doubt a host of passenger cars.

It didn't take long, moments really. The first motor home came screeching toward the tractor on my right. The one behind that just missed the first and slewed into my lane, fast chewing up the distance between him and my bumper.

I don't know if it's my imagination now or if it really happened. I see the fright of the driver in that big motor home window as he fully expects to ram me. But he was good and I had allowed enough room ahead. I engaged first gear and crept forward. It was kind of a dance and it was enough. He stopped short of me and I stopped short of the trailer in front.

Now I was really trapped.

Then I heard and saw the next group of vehicles. A tractor trailer hit a car, then jack-knifed into the fast lane and bounced off the barrier. Then another, then another.

Oddly, I felt a lot better then. There was a lot of steel in front of me, and now behind me as well. I still worried that a truck could come tumbling over the median barrier, but I was secure on three sides, at least.

I knew something was happening on the other side of the barrier too. I didn't know what.

Some time passed. No one moved. I had an urge to run for the berm, but I could envision a tractor-trailer plowing down the berm throwing mud, sod, and me into the air. There already was one big rig in the ditch ahead of us, tilted precariously at a 45 degree angle.

Then, slowly, drivers began to dismount. No one ran. No one was frantic. They all seemed in slow motion, tentative, cautious, looking over their shoulders--and at that concrete barrier separating us from whatever was hurtling past on the other side.

We listened. We could hear muffled squeals, thuds, crunches. Then silence again. Eventually we didn't hear even that. The fog cut us off. It was as if we were on another planet, torn away from the familiar.

My group slowly walked towards the vehicles in front us. They were in bad shape. One car, that's what we thought it had been, was a ball of metal. None of us even wanted to go near it. No one could live through that. Whoever was in that car certainly had to be nothing more than a bloody pile of flesh. We didn't want to look.

Nearby stood the driver of a van that had flipped on its side after rolling over that ball of metal. I felt like grabbing and yelling at him. I'd noted his vehicle when he passed me driving far too fast for conditions. It was an easy vehicle to identify--it was a Halliburton.

The truckers in my group all handled their vehicles with skill. One took his rig into the ditch. He would have crushed two cars if he hadn't. The truck in front of me stopped without hitting anyone. And the guy in the Kenilworth next to me brought his rig to a halt in a straight line even though the pavement was wet and he was hauling 80,000 pounds. The driver was calm but angry too. He was just reaching for his CB to holler at a motor home that had just passed him speeding and without lights when that very motor home careened across both lanes in front of us.

It was some time before anyone could get to us. Apparently, there was no traffic moving on the other side of the highway, either.

Finally, the state police showed up, then the ambulance crews, then the firemen. Fortunately, we were relatively close to an access road. One fire truck parked on the access road, another reached us from the other side of the barrier in the west-bound lanes.

There was still someone in that ball of metal. He was alive after all. The firemen eventually pried him out and, miraculously, he walked to the barrier and sat down with only a broken arm. It was his vehicle that made the news.

After the TV crew filmed his extraction, the firemen climbed over the median barrier and back into their truck, which was parked in the other side of the barrier. The excitement was over. People were milling around again. The firemen were just beginning to turn their truck around when there was a squeal, a crunch, and the fire truck lurched. Everyone went running.

A car had just appeared out of the fog and slammed into the fire truck. How the car got there was a mystery. The fireman had to unload their gear again and extricate the woman at the wheel. She too was uninjured. The fire truck was hardly damaged. Her car? Probably totaled.

But the driver of a pickup behind us wasn't so lucky. That tractor-trailer I saw jack-knifing crushed the pickup's cab. The driver wasn't breathing when they got him out. They said someone did CPR on him and got his pulse back but he started coughing up blood. He stopped breathing again and that was it. His son was kneeling on the pavement next to him pleading with him not to die. The guy was 58, not a whole lot older than I am.

Rumor passed along the line of milling motorists and their passengers that the pickup driver may not have been wearing his seat belt. I don't know. He was dead by the time I had the nerve to walk back there.

Those of us with four-wheel drive and in a position to move were asked to pull over onto the berm. From a distance the verge looks pleasant. But beneath the surface the berm was foul, littered with the detritus of our highway culture. Beer cans, plastic pop bottles, assorted other trash, and of course broken bits of automobiles.

The wreckers finally arrived, and began prying the cars apart.

Up ahead, one of the vehicles that started the chain reaction started up and drove off. It was a tank-like forklift used to carry massive crates of oranges. Why it was on the freeway is another mystery. When it spun out the forklift rammed the concrete barrier--and blasted a hole in the barrier spraying big chunks of concrete across the west-bound lanes. It was the concrete in the west-bound lanes that started the accidents on that side of the road.

Now that the forklift had driven off and several cars had been towed away, the recker crews broke apart the ball of metal and the once-speeding motor home.

It would be some time before they got the rig out of the ditch, but there was enough room for those of us parked on the berm to snake our way past the idling big rigs.

A CHP officer told each one of us to drive "slowly, in single file, with our lights and wipers on". There were more accidents up ahead, he warned.

Indeed. There were. There were several clusters of wrecked vehicles and long lines of stopped traffic on the other side of the road.

And sure enough, we were barely ten minutes into our long, slow drive up to the Tehachapi Pass, when some jerks were passing us. There were CHP cars and officers milling around on our side of the barrier in several places. Yet the yo-yos in the fast lane were plunging into the fog, not knowing what lay ahead.

Some people are just plain crazy.

I've had my three strikes. I don't want to bat again.


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