Double Fatality Puts Malibu’s Kanan Dume Road in the Spotlight—Again
• Authorities Are Stymied by Drivers Who Do Not Use Arrestor Bed to Stop Runaway Vehicles
BY ANNE SOBLE
BY ANNE SOBLE
A fiery collision involving a gravel-filled double trailer truck and two automobiles at the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Kanan Dume Road claimed the lives of two men—including Malibu resident William Weissberg—and resulted in serious injuries for Dave Wise, a veteran county firefighter.
Flames from the crash could have ignited office complexes adjacent to the bluff where the runaway truck exploded about 10 a.m. last Wednesday, just as wildfire-weary Malibuites were getting the smoke and ashes out of their systems.
The driver of the big rig was identified by authorities as Hovik Oganes Papikyan, 34, of Glendale.
County Sheriff’s Traffic Sgt. Philip Brooks said Papikyan was traveling illegally on Kanan Dume, which is closed to vehicles over 8000 pounds with more than two axles.
The sheriff’s department spokesperson said a preliminary review of accident data indicates the truck driver was traveling about 70 mph when he may have experienced brake failure on the road’s steep grade. He ran the red light at the PCH intersection, crashing first into the Mercedes driven by Weissberg, then into Wise’s Mercury SUV.
After it hurled over the two vehicles, the truck smashed into the embankment, shifting the gravel load forward, as well as sending it flying into the air, and killing the driver, according to Brooks.
A question repeatedly asked at the accident scene was why Papikyan did not use the 800-foot runaway vehicle arrestor bed. The emergency lane was installed in 1987 following a rash of similar truck accidents, including two in a three-week span that claimed three lives. At that time, there was a community outcry that the intersection was a safety hazard.
The arrestor bed, which is 16 feet wide and 2.5 feet deep (filled with gravel and sand), is bounded by a side concrete railing and terminates with a phalanx of 72 barrels—each filled with 1400 pounds of sand—that serve as impact-reducing devices.
There are 21 signs alerting drivers to the road’s steep grade, the need to check brakes, and the presence of the runaway vehicle lane, which has averted well over a dozen crashes.
One factor expected to be addressed in the accident report is that the last, largest warning sign was knocked down during the weekend before the accident by the nearly 100-mph winds that fueled the wildfire that started Sunday, Oct. 21. That sign was not put back up until after the accident.
Another issue expected to be raised is the concern voiced by Brooks that truck drivers were violating the truck ban rather than taking the longer detours through Camarillo-Oxnard or Santa Monica that were mandated by the closure of Malibu Canyon Road due to the wildfire. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol personnel were taxed by the fire, and there was no way to step up law enforcement on the one canyon route that remained open.
William Weissberg, 58, the Malibuite who was killed in the crash, was not identified until this Monday. Weissberg was a Century City attorney who was married and lived in the Malibu Knolls area, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by last week’s Canyon Fire. A colleague said Services for Weissberg were reportedly slated for this week at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park.
The east Malibu resident’s car was totally incinerated by the intensity of the fire at the crash scene. His name was withheld for five days because of the additional time required for identification and notification of next of kin.
At the wheel of the second struck vehicle, a white SUV, was a 25-year county firefighter, Dave Wise, who suffered a smashed foot that may require surgery, broken ribs, extensive bruising and possible head trauma.
Wise, 45, was pulled from his burning car by Ocle Martinez, who works in property management at the Point Dume Professional Center above the embankment that the truck drove into, and sheriff’s deputies who were among the first to respond to the scene.
The veteran firefighter, who has been released from the hospital and is recuperating at his home in West Hills, described the crash to the Malibu Surfside News: “I remember a sound of heavy metal, sparks, flying metal and debris, then I passed out...when I came to, there was fire all around me...my clothes were soaked with diesel fuel.”
He said that he still can’t believe that he “survived the [flames and fumes]. I am so grateful...” His wife, Penny, said simply that “he has a guardian angel...if the truck had hit the car an inch or two in either direction, Dave would be dead.”
Wise paused, then softly explained that when he was assigned to local Fire Station 99 two years ago, his was the second unit to respond when an overloaded double rig of roof tiles barreled through the same intersection. The light was green and the intersection was empty at the time.
The driver of that truck was killed but a passenger in the cab survived.
An intensive investigation of last Wednesday’s accident is expected to take several weeks or more, according to Brooks. In addition to questions about signage placement, investigators will try to determine the truck’s condition, what kind of training the driver had and whether he was directed to use Kanan.
The LASD spokesperson said it is possible that “damage to the truck is so intensive that the investigation may yield few, if any, clues.”
Brooks said the possibility that Papikyan panicked or froze at the wheel is not being ruled out.
A family member told Brooks that the driver spoke and read English. It is surmised that he knew he was on the road illegally and saw the signs about the runaway vehicle lane.
Why he ignored the arrestor bed and tried to turn onto Pacific Coast Highway, causing the truck to go into a centrifugal skid, may never be known.