2 Dead, 16 Hurt in Pileup Caused By Blinding Sandstorm on Highway Near Los Angeles

Tuesday, October 16th 2007, 10:13 pm
By: News On 6

LANCASTER, Calif. (AP) -- A blinding sandstorm that caught drivers by surprise caused a pileup Tuesday on a highway in the high desert north of Los Angeles, killing at least two people and injuring 16, authorities said.

Two victims were in critical condition after the crash that left at least a dozen vehicles scattered across the highway, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Ron Haralson said.

The crash was reported around 1:40 p.m. during a sandstorm whipped by winds gusting up to 55 mph, the National Weather Service said.

Eight vehicles and four big rigs were involved in the pileup, fire officials said.

A family of 11 visiting from Fortaleza, Brazil, were on their way to Las Vegas when their van crashed. Nine were injured and taken to Antelope Valley Hospital with broken arms, legs and lacerations, a family member said.

``All my family was in this van, all 11,'' 46-year-old Fernando Amaral Pontes said, sobbing.

Markan Rios, who was in the van, was visibly shaken as he waited next to the crumbled van for someone to take him and Pontes to the hospital.

``I couldn't see anything, it was too much and too quick,'' Rios said. ``I was coming in and I saw the sand and we slowed down, but the truck in front of us had stalled and we couldn't stop.''

The California Highway Patrol closed all northbound lanes of Highway 14, causing traffic to back up for miles.

The accident happened just west of Edwards Air Force Base at the northern edge of Los Angeles County, not far from the site of a fiery truck pileup Friday night in a tunnel on the Interstate 5 freeway. The cause of that crash, which killed three people and injured 10, is still under investigation.

Tuesday's crash left big rigs and passenger cars scattered and bent on the pavement and dirt center divider. Tow truck crews loaded mangled cars and vans onto flatbeds, including a van that appeared to have no back end. The contents of a Sears delivery van laid scattered across lanes of the freeway as fierce winds continued to blow.

Police were investigating whether two other fatal collisions, which happened 20 miles north and two hours before the pileup, were caused by strong winds.

A pickup truck rear-ended a tractor-trailer, killing the driver of the pickup, police said. Roughly 10 minutes later, one person died in a collision in the same area.

The weather service issued a dust storm warning for the area Tuesday afternoon, cautioning that blowing dust in the region could reduce visibility to near zero.

``It's not unheard-of for the area to experience a dust storm, but it's not an everyday type of thing,'' said meteorologist Jaime Meier in the weather service's Oxnard office.

Like the rest of California, the Antelope Valley has been bone-dry this year, receiving less than two inches of rain. The dryness means dirt and sand are not packed down in the ground and are more likely to swirl in the face of strong winds.

``It's just loose and is able to impact visibility just the same way as a blizzard,'' Meier said.