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Tunnel seen as risky long before deadly crash

Long before a  pileup last fall killed three people inside a curving, dimly lighted tunnel, authorities warned that steps should be taken to improve safety.
Image: Big rig truck burns at accident scene on Interstate 5 freeway north of Los Angeles
A truck burns at the entrance to a tunnel on the Golden State freeway near the Antelope Valley freeway after a collision involving vehicles on rain-slicked roads north of Los Angeles on October 12, 2007.Gene Blevins / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

More than a decade before a fiery, 34-vehicle pileup last fall killed three people inside a curving, dimly lighted tunnel, authorities warned that the stretch of freeway was perilous and that steps should be taken to improve safety, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Highway officials did cut grooves into the pavement to improve traction, and it seemed to make a difference. But a state police request to routinely close the road in stormy weather was rejected. And later, the state raised the speed limit in the tunnel from 45 mph to 55 mph.

Now California officials are facing accusations they contributed to the tragedy by turning a blind eye to the dangers.

The tunnel was "a recipe for disaster — always was," said Marvin Louis Wolf, a lawyer who has filed a claim against the state on behalf of a trucking company involved in the crash. "It was outdated the minute it was completed."

State highway officials said road was safe
Thirty-three trucks and a car crashed during a rainstorm in the Oct. 12 wreck, which happened on Interstate 5 at a mountain pass north of Los Angeles. The inferno closed the major West Coast route between Mexico and Canada for two days, and the cleanup and repairs totaled $17 million.

In the aftermath, state highway officials assured the public the road was safe.

"I'm aware of no safety concerns," Douglas Failing, a regional director for the California Department of Transportation, said at the time.

But victims' lawyers and freight companies are challenging that assessment, which conflicts with the road's notorious reputation among truckers and locals alike. Claims filed with the state since the accident depict the tunnel as dangerously dark and poorly designed, with too few warning signs and a speed limit that invited catastrophe.

Trucker Jose Medina, who escaped after his rig was rear-ended in the pileup, said its abrupt curve made it impossible for oncoming truckers to see the danger after the first rig crashed near the exit of the tunnel.

"You're coming down a hill, there is a tunnel, a big curve," said Medina, who gave up trucking after the crash and now works as a bartender in Puerto Rico. "It was like dominoes. You don't have any chance."

Repairs and updates after disaster
The tunnel was repaired and reopened a month after the disaster, and now bears little resemblance to its 1970s-era predecessor. White concrete was used to increase illumination, 500 computerized lights can create a noontime-like brilliance inside, and flashing signs mark the entrance. The tunnel speed has been lowered back to 45 mph.

A second tunnel, farther downhill, was not damaged and has not been redesigned.

Drivers descending the mountain pass toward Los Angeles go through the two tunnels while passing through a 2.4-mile network of curving bypass roads designed to allow trucks to come down along a gentler grade. Cars are also allowed in those lanes.

Driving those lanes can be tricky and can include frequent stops and starts, with curves, merges and slow-moving trucks that can obscure what's ahead.

Records show the 550-foot tunnel where the crash happened has been nearly accident-free in recent years. However, between 2002 and 2006, there was an average of nearly one collision a week on the network of bypass roads going both directions.

In 1996, the California Highway Patrol was so distressed it recommended shutting the truck lanes and the tunnel in stormy weather — an idea state officials deemed unacceptable because they did not have the manpower to pull that off, according to internal documents obtained by the AP.

That same year, state transportation maintenance supervisor Charles Payne, alarmed by numerous crashes in stormy weather, wrote a letter urging engineers to review speeds and road conditions. "It is my concern that if these issues are not addressed immediately, that a major incident will happen with possible loss of life," he wrote.

The state spent $250,000 in 1998 to grind and groove the pavement to improve traction. Accidents on the cluster of roads in both directions dropped from 1999 through 2001, government records show, but then began to climb. There were 32 accidents in 1999 and 55 by 2003, the year after the speed limit was raised to 55 mph.

Traffic in both directions on the busy stretch of highway increased 32 percent from 1996 to 2006, to an average of 281,000 vehicles a week.

In an interview, Failing said that the overall crash rate is slightly above the norm, but that serious collisions — those involving deaths or injuries — are slightly below average.

"The statistics, the accident records, everything showed that this roadway was safe, especially when driven with due care," Failing said. "If there was any doubt in our minds, we would have been out making changes."

The California Highway Patrol is still investigating the cause and declined to comment on safety questions about the tunnel. The official cause is certain to have a powerful effect on the legal claims, which could expose the state to millions of dollars in damages.

State accused in lawsuits
John Woodrooffe, who heads the safety analysis division at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, said the increase in accidents in 2002 and 2003, after several years of relatively stable numbers, could be explained by increased traffic, weather or the economy. But one trend was clear: wet-weather crashes dropped, suggesting the 1998 road work helped reduce accidents.

The deadly crash took place after the first significant rain in months made the road slick. The pileup is believed to have started with a tractor-trailer that went out of control and crashed as it was leaving the tunnel.

The pileup spread wreckage over a half-mile and sent motorists running for their lives from the 1,400-degree fire. Among the three victims was a 6-year-old boy, Isaiah Matthew Rodriguez, who was riding in his father's truck.

The boy's mother has charged in state documents that officials were aware of a "significant number" of accidents in and around the tunnel but looked the other way. Water pooled inside, light fixtures weren't working and it was improperly banked and graded, the mother said.

"This tunnel should have had a lower speed limit, a highway patrol car parked three miles from the entrance as a reminder to slow down. There should have been warning signs to the entrance of the tunnel that there is something going on inside the tunnel," said Wolf, who represents Western Regional Delivery Service. "They've done it after people died."