2/08 tahoe mt.news
By Kathryn Reed
Plunging 300 feet of a cliff would seem like a sure death sentence.
All of the occupants of two vehicles which did this in a matter of 10 minutes of each other on Jan.22 lived to tell about it.
Caltrans has no plans to install guardrails on Highway 89 at the hairpin turns near Emerald Bay where the cars careened off.
“If we had guardrails there, they would have been catapulted further and it would have made it worse,” explained Rochelle Jenkins, spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation. “It’s not safe or logical to put a guardrail there.”
The angle at which a vehicle would hit the rail is the problem. Caltrans’ statistics from July 2002 to July 2007 (the most recent available) show “no major incidents in that hairpin corridor,” Jenkins said. This means no injury accidents.
The California Highway Patrol has taken three reports of vehicles going over the side since August. This accounts for only one of the Jan. 22 incidents because one driver had yet to make a report because she only sustained a scratch to her hand.
Emerald Bay Towing, often the company to fetch the twisted metal from boulders and trees, said it pulls about a dozen vehicles from that section of roadway each year.
“As soon as the first snow (arrives), that baby is rocking and rolling in there,” manager Chris Lytther said of the Emerald Bay area. They pull up cars year-round. “The ones that went off (Jan. 22) had a chance to start to turn, but just went straight.”
The first Subaru to tumble over the edge had five guys in it. A couple complained of small lacerations and abrasions, according to CHP Officer Jeff Gartner. This was at about 6:20 p.m. on a slick road.
Caltrans dictates when a road will be closed because of snow. CHP does it if an accident blocks the road.
About 10 minutes later, a Subaru driven by Sarah Lynn Howard, 30, of Christmas Valley went over near the same location. Howard said she was creeping along at an incredibly slow speed when suddenly she was unable to make the turn.
“I landed nose down between a tree and huge boulder with the front of my car in a snow pile,” said Howard, who was wearing her seatbelt. “None of my air bags deployed. I hit a big enough boulder that sent me into a spiral tumble. I tumbled at least five times. I thought ‘If I hit my head, I’m going to die.’”
She let go of the steering wheel, balled herself up to protect her from the windows what she could hear shattering. One of the guys from the other vehicle asked if she was OK. They couldn’t hear her scream in the cold, dark blizzard. The light from her cell indicated she was alive so one of them climbed down to help her out.
“Some action needs to be taken. If they can’t put guardrails in, they should put in boulders,” Howard said. “I don’t think I’m asking too much.”
She’s thankful for the guys who helped her up to the road and to Emerald Bay Towing for the 4.5 hours it took to retrieve her totaled Outback. She even praises Caltrans for their work, but questions their safety practices.
“I’m still alive. I feel my priorities have change,” Howard said. “Whoever is responsible, I wish their priorities would change. It doesn’t have to take a life to encourage a safety measure.”