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Family of Newhall pass crash victim sues

Three died in fiery October 2007 pileup

Posted: June 23, 2009 9:04 p.m.
Updated: June 24, 2009 4:55 a.m.
This Signal file photo shows the fiery crash from the southbound Interstate 5 tunnel fire Oct. 12, 2007. This Signal file photo shows the fiery crash from the southbound Interstate 5 tunnel fire Oct. 12, 2007.
This Signal file photo shows the fiery crash from the southbound Interstate 5 tunnel fire Oct. 12, 2007.

The wife and children of a big-rig driver killed in a fiery 2007 pileup in the Newhall Pass are suing the state of California and a trucking company whose driver they blame for the deadly wreck.

Ricardo Cibrian Baltazar, 39, died in October 12, 2007, when he was trapped and killed in the 34-vehicle wreck in the tunnel on southbound Interstate 5. He is survived by his wife and three children, two of whom are under 18.

The family’s attorney said Tuesday they believe the state is responsible for the dangerous tunnel and the Saia Inc. trucking company’s driver caused the initial problem that caused the pileup.

“The most tragic thing about this is the preventability of it,” said attorney Tim Tietjen of the San Francisco-based law firm Rouda, Feder, Tietjen and Zanobini.

“There’s no question that if the Saia driver had been operating a safe vehicle in a safe manner, the accident would have been avoided. ... Because of the design of the tunnel, the darkness of the tunnel and the curve of the tunnel ... you had essentially a domino effect, where the vehicles began backing up and colliding into each other.”

The complaint, filed last week, also names several other drivers and trucking companies involved in the pileup.

Officials with CalTrans and Georgia-based Saia Inc. declined to comment on the lawsuit. The trucking company had blamed other factors, including the design of the tunnel and other drivers’ errors and speeding.

The collision occurred on a rainy night after a big rig jackknifed about 500 feet beyond the tunnel. Several other big rigs stopped to avoid crashing into the jackknifed truck, causing a chain-reaction crash in the tunnel.

In all, 33 big rigs and one passenger car were involved in the pileup.

Cibrian Baltazar had been hauling canned goods from the Bay Area to Los Angeles when he joined the wreck in the tunnel. He couldn’t escape — the tunnel wall pinned his driver’s-side door shut and another big rig smashed into his passenger-side door, Tietjen said.

He burned to death.

Aside from Cibrian Baltazar, two others died: another truck driver and that driver’s 6-year-old son.

The fire burned at 1,800 degrees for more than 30 hours, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Since the crash, the state has repaired the tunnel, added lights, white reflective paint and signs, said CalTrans spokeswoman Kelly Markham.

Officials with the trucking company referred The Signal to a statement they released in February, saying they stand by it and have no further comment.

In the company’s statement, it denies responsibility for the wreck and blames the design of the tunnel.

“A well-illuminated straightway tunnel equipped with operative warning signs would almost certainly have provided enough visibility and stopping distance to have prevented the October 12 pileup,” the company said. “The incidents south of and inside the tunnel were unrelated because the Saia truck did not come into contact with any other vehicles, either before, during or after its single vehicle accident.”



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