Two people died Thursday morning in a fiery collision on Interstate 80 reportedly caused by a big-rig driver who briefly lost consciousness while choking on food, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The collision snarled traffic in the region for hours: Eastbound lanes were closed for two hours following the 10:30 a.m. incident; westbound lanes remained blocked for nearly seven hours. Traffic began to flow normally again about 5:15 p.m.
The truck driver, who was not identified, was treated for minor to moderate injuries at a local hospital, said CHP Officer Chris Parker.
As of Thursday evening, the identities of the deceased victims had not been released. They were the driver and passenger in the last of three cars struck by the big rig, Parker said.
The incident spanned the entire interstate east of the University of California, Davis, exit, and the lane closures sent commuters to Highway 113 and Highway 12.
According to Parker, the big rig was traveling eastbound in the slow lane about 10:30 a.m. when the driver, who was eating, began to choke on his food. He told officers that he briefly lost consciousness, and his truck drifted onto the right shoulder before veering left across all lanes of eastbound traffic, Parker said.
The big rig then struck two cars whose occupants suffered minor to moderate injuries, Parker said.
The tractor-trailer then struck the guardrail in the center divider and passed into westbound lanes, Parker said. At that point, the big rig driver regained consciousness, but "unfortunately it's not in time enough to avoid a head-on collision," Parker said.
The big rig struck a westbound BMW, and both vehicles burst into flames. The occupants of the BMW died and both vehicles sustained massive damage as a result of the fire. The big rig driver was burned but he was able to exit his vehicle before it became fully engulfed.
Parker said it is not yet clear whether the big rig's driver will face charges in connection with the collisions. That decision will be made by the District Attorney's Office after the investigation is complete.
Data issued by the Sacramento area California Highway Patrol office in 2010 showed that eating while driving was the fourth-biggest distraction leading to accidents, after adjusting radios, using cellphones and attending to children.
Call The Bee's Kim Minugh, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @kim_minugh.