A blinding dust storm trapped hundreds of holiday motorists on Interstate 5 in the San Joaquin Valley yesterday, leaving at least 12 people dead and 150 injured in a series of chain-reaction accidents, the California Highway Patrol said.
A CHP spokeswoman said as many as 100 cars and big-rig trucks slammed into one another on the highway approximately 45 miles north of Coalinga.
Every available emergency vehicle in Coalinga and Los Banos was summoned to the scene, said CHP spokeswoman Mary Kerr. Emergency crews from Merced and Hanford also were called.
Witnesses described an eerie scene, with burning cars, trailers and smashed trucks lining the roadway. Survivors climbed from their cars, bloodied and covered with dust-blown sand.
The CHP closed a 150-mile stretch of the heavily traveled roadway from the Highway 99 junction near Bakersfield north to Los Banos due to 70-mph winds and zero visibility from the dust storms, the spokeswoman said.
The highway remained closed into the evening.
A truck driver transporting a load of vegetables from San Francisco to Los Angeles said vehicles were ramming into each other like giant bumper cars when he pulled his 18-wheeler off the freeway. Four or five cars suddenly piled up behind him.
The driver, who identified himself only as James, said he stopped and began to carry moaning and screaming victims to the side of the road. At least 20 people on stretchers were lined up along the shoulder, he said.
"Some were alive, but I think some were dead," said the 63-year-old Los Angeles man. "It was pretty terrible."
Many survivors and witnesses gathered at a Chevron service station 10 miles away.
Maria Martinez, a cashier at the station, said witnesses told her it was "just gruesome, it was really bad. There were bodies everywhere, cars everywhere, car upon car upon trailer upon truck. . . . The highway patrol did not even want to go in for fear of getting in an accident."