Crews cleared burned hulks of cars and trucks off an interstate Saturday, and officials identified victims of a pileup that killed 17 people and injured 150 others during a blinding dust storm.
Authorities described the series of crashes Friday as the worst highway pileup in state history and perhaps in the nation in terms of dead and injured.The wreckage of vehicles was strewn over a mile stretch of Interstate 5 about 160 miles southeast of San Francisco. It shut down a 150-mile portion of the major north-south interstate between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
That stretch of highway reopened late Saturday, the California Highway Patrol said.
The death toll could mount because 20 of the injured remained in critical condition in hospitals and the CHP was still inspecting some charred wreckage for bodies.
The Fresno County coroner's office released the identities of 15 of the 17 victims, who ranged in age from 1 to 70 years old. Two other victims were "burned beyond recognition" and wouldn't be positively identified for a few days, Deputy Coroner Richard Tobin said.
The crashes involved 93 vehicles, including 11 big rigs. More than a dozen vehicles burned down to metal frames. Others were smashed from all sides. Some appeared to have been involved in simple fender-benders right after the crash.
"By the time I saw brake lights, it was too late to stop," said Johnny John of San Jose. He was taken to an overnight shelter with other drivers and passengers who weren't injured.
Winds were blowing 35 mph Saturday, creating a blinding, silvery white curtain over the scene.
A dozen tow trucks pried apart vehicles as a firefighter, wearing a face mask and goggles like other workers, stood by with a hose in case crushed gas tanks exploded.
Lee Smith, 50, of Grants Pass, Ore., watched grimly as wrecked cars were pulled from around his relatively unscathed big rig, which was carrying 47,000 pounds of rolled paper. He managed to pull off the road and miss getting hit.
"I could hear them hitting back there and then there was a cloud of smoke that came up from a fire," he said.
Witnesses caught in the pileup said poor visibility turned to near blackness when 60 mph winds gusted, kicking up swirls of parched dirt from fallow fields in the Central Valley, which is in its fifth year of drought.
Peter Harvey of Oakland, like many others traveling home from a Thanksgiving Day get-together, said his family barely escaped death.
"Visibility came and went and this time it went all of a sudden," Harvey said. "We barely rear-ended a car and then when we looked back what we saw was a big rig carrying hay coming right at us.
"We grabbed our kids, got out of the car and ran to the side of the road."
Others weren't so fortunate.
The highway patrol didn't close the interstate before the blinding dust storm because it came up too quickly, said John Anderson, a highway patrol spokesman.
"These people were surprised," Anderson said of the drivers. "We were surprised. With fog you know it's coming up. With wind you don't know it's coming up."
Fog has led to previous pileups on the same stretch of Interstate 5, and a dust storm a few days ago prompted some drivers to pull over until the wind died down, said tow truck driver Tony Ramirez.
"I've never seen an accident in California that comes close to being as bad as this one," said Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, who toured the scene Saturday.
Coalinga pileup tops a list of nation's worst
Here are some of the worst recent interstate car pileups in which deaths were reported.
-Nov. 29, 1991. At least 17 people were killed in a 104-vehicle pileup on Interstate 5 near Coalinga, about 160 miles southeast of San Francisco. A blinding dust storm was blamed for the series of crashes in which another 150 people were injured.
-Dec. 11 1990. Thirteen people were killed in an 83-vehicle pileup on Interstate 75, about 40 miles northeast of Chattanooga, Tenn. More than 50 others were injured in the accident caused by dense fog.
-July 25, 1990. Eight people were killed in a pileup on Interstate 79 in West Virginia when a tractor-trailer lost its brakes on a hill, crashing into a group of vehicles stalled at a construction site.