Two fiery crashes this week on Highway 99 add to road’s deadly history in the Valley
By Brianna Calix
Two explosive fires erupted this week after big rigs overturned on Highway 99, a stretch of road in the San Joaquin Valley that in a report last year was named the deadliest highway in the nation.
A tanker truck carrying about 9,000 gallons of gasoline overturned and burst into flames Tuesday after rushing off Highway 99 in Atwater, triggering several explosions. The driver, 57-year-old Kamkyo Ramon Gnotsavath of Hughson, was killed. Witnesses told investigators the truck already may have been on fire when it left the highway, authorities said.
The next day, a big rig carrying liquid cleaning solution struck a guardrail, jackknifed and caught fire. The flames spread to the dry grass near the Highway 152 interchange, just south of Chowchilla. Several roads were closed for hours, but no one was injured.
While it remains unclear whether road conditions or the highway itself played any role, the crashes this week add to the road’s history of deadly troubles.
In 2016, a report by consumer-data analysts at ValuePenguin named the 400-mile highway that runs through the centers of Modesto, Merced, Fresno and other Valley cities as the deadliest in the nation.
At least three deadly crashes were reported in 2016 on Highway 99, between Livingston and Merced. A retired Merced County court commissioner died in a crash on the freeway near Atwater in June. A passenger bus carrying travelers from Mexico crashed in August last year on Highway 99, between Livingston and Atwater. A school teacher and her son also lost their lives about a month later near Westside Boulevard when the woman’s Lexus crossed the center divide and collided with oncoming traffic.
A total of 264 fatal crashes were reported on that stretch of Highway 99 between 2011 and 2015, the group reported. ValuePenguin culled the data from the National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration database. Fifty of those involved drunken driving, the study showed.
California highway officials have spent about $1 billion on safety and efficiency improvements on Highway 99 during the past 10 years, using some of the $20 billion in infrastructure bonds approved by state voters in 2006 under Proposition 1B. At the time, state officials said the old highway was outdated, with narrow shoulders, tight ramps and under-sized interchanges. Improvement work has been ongoing since then.
Recently, Caltrans completed a $3 million project to install a median guardrail on Highway 99 from Atwater to Winton Parkway in Livingston.
Caltrans has an upcoming project to widen the highway from two lanes to three in each direction in Livingston.
“Certainly when we do a new project like that, we include the most up-to-date safety features that we can,” said Warren Alford, a Caltrans spokesman. “I think folks should feel confident that State Route 99 is getting safer all the time.”
Many took to social media Tuesday and Wednesday, complaining that the Applegate Road exit is poorly designed, noting the signage calls for traffic to slow to 25 mph on the winding exit.
Skip Allum, a spokesman for Caltrans, noted the exit has multiple signs warning drivers to slow down, including blinking lights and road markings.
“It’s pretty well marked,” he said.
Alford confirmed Caltrans is not aware of any safety issues at that location.
Gnotsavath’s Class A license was valid on Tuesday when he drove the 2008 Peterbilt tanker for Williams Tank Lines. In 2015, he had one speeding violation, DMV records show.
Williams employs 450 drivers for 203 trucks, records with the Federal Motors Carrier Safety Administration show. In the last two years, Williams’ drivers have been involved in two fatal crashes and five injury crashes, FMCSA records show. The records do not determine whether the Williams’ drivers were at fault in any of those crashes.
A Williams Tank Lines truck veered off Highway 99 and overturned near Modesto in November, spilling thousands of gallons of gas onto the roadway and forcing road closures for 14 hours.
In a 2015 incident near Santa Barbara, the truck Gnotsavath drove on Tuesday was parked off the roadway when a woman driving a minivan crashed into it and another parked tractor-trailer. The Williams-owned truck was towed away, reports show. The woman died from the collision.
FMCSA issued Williams a “satisfactory” safety rating in 2014, the most recent rating reported on the website.
The cause of Tuesday’s crash in Atwater has not been determined officially. Officer Eric Zuniga, a spokesman for CHP, said investigators were working to piece together a 24-hour profile on Gnotsavath.
Williams’ website shows it requires driver applicants to have no more than one preventable accident within three years. Reckless driving, hit and runs and DUI violations also disqualify applicants. Williams’ also requires drivers to have physicals and back evaluations for employment.