Feb. 07–The day after a dump truck carrying debris from October’s wildfires caused a fiery, multi-vehicle accident at the northern end of Santa Rosa, injuring seven people, the company overseeing cleanup work extended on Tuesday its halt of all related hauling operations to review safety procedures.
The move by Burlingame-based ECC, the government contractor working to clear burned residential lots, came as Santa Rosa police investigators released new details from their inquiry into the crash, which involved nine other vehicles near the intersection of Mendocino Avenue and Fountain Grove Parkway. Three motorists were critically injured and remained in hospital treatment Tuesday.
Initial reports to emergency dispatchers on Monday indicated that the truck’s brakes might have failed, and Santa Rosa police, while declining to discuss preliminary rulings from their investigation, did confirm Tuesday that no tire skid marks — a telltale sign of abrupt braking — were present on the roadway from the dump truck.
Friction marks, usually associated with attempting to turn and resulting from “basically going faster than the vehicle can safety make the turn,” were discovered, Sgt. Chad Heiser said.
Following the crash on Monday at about 9:25 a.m., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ asked ECC to perform brake inspections and review driver protocols, measures that cover scores of dump trucks working in local fire zones.
“It was a tragic accident obviously, and it’s times like this that we want to double down and ensure we’re doing what we should we be doing,” said Rick Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “ECC is also trying to do that with its subcontractors, and we want to take a good, hard, close look … to avoid any further accidents like that.”
Brown added he didn’t believe the brief work stoppage would factor in any significant delay of the debris cleanup, which is now focused on the Fountaingrove area, where more than 1,500 homes burned.
Santa Rosa police on Tuesday identified the driver of the four-axle 2009 Kenworth dump truck as Francisco Alberto Rodriguez, 45, of Sunnyvale. He was driving westbound on Fountain Grove Parkway — with a cargo of up to 15 tons, according to an ECC official — and was descending the steep slope when the truck ran through a red light, barreling into the intersection on Mendocino Avenue before striking a southbound pickup truck, police said.
As the pickup collided with an SUV also southbound on Mendocino, the out-of-control dump truck continued westbound across the intersection, colliding with six other vehicles and triggering additional crashes, police said. The dump truck came to a rest on a hill in the eastbound lanes of Fountain Grove Parkway, and diesel began spurting from its ruptured fuel tank.
Six vehicles, including the dump truck were eventually engulfed in flames as witnesses and emergency responders scrambled to pull injured and trapped motorists to safety. A massive plume of black smoke filled the sky over northern Santa Rosa and firefighters spent nearly an hour before the flames were extinguished.
Santa Rosa police are leading the investigation into the crash and Heiser said it could be two weeks before a full report is available.
Among the motorists involved, Barbara Ann Schmidt, 76, of Guerneville and her passenger, Cheryl Louise Strong, 72, of Windsor, both suffered major injuries and were in critical condition Tuesday. Linda Joyce Holden, 64, of Healdsburg also suffered major injuries and was in critical condition. The injuries of all three were said to be nonlife threatening.
Four others suffered minor injuries, including: Tesfamichael Asfaha Yigzaw, 40, of Windsor; Bill Ray Frisbie, 82, of Graton; Chris Taylor Miller, 37, of Windsor; and Arash Horbakht, 36, of Santa Rosa.
Rodriguez was not injured and has cooperated with authorities. He was driving a truck owned by Flores Trucking Co. of Vallejo, police said. The hauling work was for ECC subcontractor 18 Trucking, of Hayward. The debris in the truck was from the Fountaingrove neighborhood.
The truck’s speed and exact weight at the time of the crash were not available Tuesday, Heiser said. The posted speed limit for the heavily trafficked intersection, with access to nearby Highway 101, is 40 miles per hour.
Rich Gioscia, ECC’s vice president of environment, safety and quality control, said Rodriguez planned to drive the load south to the Sonoma County Central Landfill west of Cotati via Highway 101. ECC officials said the trucks typically carry no more than 15 tons; Brown, the Army Corps spokesman said trucks going to the county landfill were averaging 15 tons a load.
Flores Trucking could not be reached Tuesday, and a message left for 18 Trucking was not returned.
It was the second major accident involving cleanup of debris from October’s fires. In December, a dump truck driver, Ezekiel Jackson Sumner Jr., 60, of Paradise, was crushed to death by his truck at the county landfill. Sumner worked for a subcontractor to AshBritt Inc., which at that time was the government’s main cleanup contractor. Cal OSHA, the state’s workplace safety regulator, is investigating the accident.
Debris cleanup has resulted in traffic increases in the Fountaingrove area, Heiser said. He said the department had received several complaints about debris trucks, and conducted stops on them to review possible violations.
Two electronic signs urging truckers to use low gears on the steep hill, and to lower speeds to 25 mph, were recently installed on westbound Fountain Grove Parkway, just below Newgate Court and near the entrance to Nagasawa Park. A Fountaingrove resident stated at least one of the signs was not there before Monday at 3 p.m.
Heiser said he was unaware of their presence and did not know who would have requested or installed them.
A message left with the Sonoma County Transportation & Public Works department, which reviews area traffic and maintains roads outside city limits, went unreturned Tuesday.
City officials, meanwhile, are considering their ability to require new safety measures in the area.
“Part of my question (to staff) is I don’t think we have jurisdiction over safety of those trucks, but I want to see what can be done to ensure that trucks going up and down that hill are being maintained correctly,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey.
“The trucks are here in the community for a reason. We need them to be doing the work they’re doing — we also need to make sure they’re safe.”
ECC continued some nontrucking work at burned lots Tuesday, including soil sampling and concrete demolition. It plans to resume hauling Wednesday.
At least 88 trucks were re-inspected through Tuesday, Gioscia said. Among other changes in operations, each driver will go through additional training this week, he said.
“Some of it’s intuitive, but we want to make sure we review it with them again,” said Gioscia. “We are very serious about safety. I think we have the measures in place so we don’t have a similar incident again.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at email@example.com. On Twitter @kfixler.
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