Witnesses recall horror as wayward truck killed 2, closed I-80

Published: Saturday, Mar. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 31, 2013 - 1:46 pm

It was like a scene out of a movie.

Witnesses on Friday described the horror of a fatal collision Thursday morning in which a big rig veered out of control on Interstate 80, sliced through eight lanes of traffic, killed two people in an oncoming car and burst into flames.

"He should have killed a bunch more people. It was terrible," witness Brian Hodgins told The Bee.

The 52-year-old from San Carlos had a front row seat to the crash that unfolded 200 feet before him shortly after 10:30 a.m. Thursday. Hodgins was traveling two cars behind in the second eastbound lane when he noticed the big rig in the slow lane gradually veering right onto the shoulder.

At that point, he said the truck suddenly swerved 30 degrees to the left into the other eastbound lanes, taking out two cars before piercing through the center divide and hitting a westbound BMW sedan head-on. Hodgins said the truck was going about 60 mph and did not signal or brake.

"The truck sliced through the guardrail like butter," he said. "There was no hop, no bounce. It was unbelievable."

The BMW exploded into flames and its occupants, Phang Phetsomphou, 76, and Bouaket Phetsomphou, 74, died instantly, the Solano County Sheriff-Coroner's Office reported Friday. Both were from Petaluma.

The accident was over within seconds, Hodgins said, but nothing seemed to stop the truck.

"The cars were like toys," he said. "The truck was unfazed. It went on its merry way."

The incident spanned the entire stretch of highway east of the University of California, Davis. It brought traffic to a standstill, with the California Highway Patrol closing eastbound lanes for two hours and westbound lanes for seven.

The trucker – identified as John Manuszak, 45, of Fresno – told authorities he briefly lost consciousness after choking on food, according to CHP Officer Chris Parker.

Manuszak suffered minor to moderate injuries and was listed in fair condition at UC Davis Medical Center on Friday. He and his family declined to comment.

The CHP has ruled out alcohol and drugs as factors in the collision.

George Chao was just two exits away from his destination in Davis when he was struck from behind by the big rig.

"My car spun eight times," the 33-year-old engineer said in Mandarin during a phone interview Friday. "I yelled: 'God save me!' "

Seconds later, he emerged unscathed, except for a small scratch on his forehead.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Am I going to survive?' " Chao said.

"If he had traveled one second earlier, he would be dead," Hodgins said.

A 1993 BMW station wagon that was the second car struck by the truck wasn't as lucky. That vehicle slammed into the center divide. Both occupants, Daniel Himelstein, 51, and Jacob Himelstein, 10, were transported to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento with moderate injuries.

Manuszak reportedly told witnesses afterward that he had choked on a french fry, according to Hodgins.

The trucker appears to have a history of run-ins with the law, public records from LexisNexis indicate.

In the past seven years, he was arrested more than half a dozen times on various charges, including burglary, car theft and domestic violence, according to arrest records from LexisNexis. Additionally, he was put on probation and had his driver's license revoked in 2006.

The truck is privately owned by the driver while the trailer is registered to Fresno-based Mendoza Distributing, according to the CHP. A representative of the firm, however, denied the company owned the trailer involved in Thursday's crash.

Authorities are still investigating the crash. It remains unclear whether the trucker will face any charges. He has not been cited or arrested.

Parker noted that the decision on whether to file charges will come from the Solano County District Attorney's Office.

Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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