A 34-year-old Manteca medical assistant braved heavy black smoke and flames as she rushed to reach a trucker in the cab of his semi after he collided with concrete support beams below the Louise Avenue overcrossing on Highway 99 Tuesday morning.
Anthony Mata, 56, of Auburn literally had his truck disintegrate and catch fire shortly after 10 a.m. The driver’s compartment was ripped off the frame and torpedoing across the northbound lanes of the freeway. CHP spokesman Officer Angel Arceo said the trucker had sideswiped a blue Honda Civic before colliding with the bridge support.
Mata was still inside the cab when Good Samaritan Sandra Gardere parked her car on Louise Avenue west of the freeway to see where the smoke was coming from below the bridge. When she realized it was a serious collision and feared someone was trapped, she ran across the bridge in the heavy, black smoke that reached some 100 feet in the air.
Gardere found the driver sitting in the passenger’s seat of the truck’s cab. She said he was incoherent when she got to him asking him all the medical questions to determine if he had suffered a concussion.
He didn’t know where he was or what had happened. She said she asked him who the president was and all he would say in reply was, “I don’t know.” The woman said he kept nodding off and she knew she couldn’t let him go to sleep.
Gardere said the man had a severe gash over his right eye and she attempted to keep pressure on the wound with a towel to stop the bleeding that had covered his face and shirt. The driver complained of intense pain in the back of his neck, she added.
The woman said the tires would make a squealing sound before they exploded. Each time she heard that noise, she would drop down behind the truck’s right side door for safety and hope the two of them wouldn’t be hit by shrapnel from the tire fragments.
Gardere said she prayed that the fuel tanks wouldn’t blow up for fear they would both be covered with diesel fuel. “I wasn’t going to leave him alone,” she stressed.
The medical assistant added that she didn’t notice the heat from the fire, as it was already pretty cold outside. However, when firemen put out the flames, she added that it suddenly became much colder.
The trucker was taken to Memorial Hospital in Modesto by REACH medical helicopter where he was listed in critical condition Tuesday afternoon, according to the CHP.
Traffic in both directions – north and south – on Highway 99 was backed up for more than four hours until Caltrans engineers could inspect the possible structural damage to the bridge. Motorists were detoured onto the Highway 120 Bypass to the south and on Lathrop Road to the north. Caltrans advised Sacramento to Modesto Highway 99 traffic to use Interstate 5 instead.
An hour after the crash motorists were still stopped on the freeway unable to turn around and make a detour. Traffic on the 120 Bypass had come to a standstill as well.
Gardere said she was going to try and visit the trucker in the hospital praying that he will recover from his injuries. She noted that she has been invited to be on Good Day Sacramento this morning and talk about her ordeal. Relatives had urged her to get checked out in an emergency room late Tuesday as she was coughing repeatedly from the apparent effects of the smoke from the burning tires and diesel fuel.