Driver survives 600-foot plunge off Echo Summit
CHRISTMAS VALLEY – A driver survived a crash Tuesday in which a silver Toyota Rav 4 went off Highway 50 at Echo Summit, plunging about 600 feet before resting on a mountain slope.
The SUV’s lone occupant, 33-year-old Chandra Sikaria from Folsom, was stabilized with two IVs and oxygen on the rocky and manzanita-filled slope before she was airlifted by a CHP helicopter.
The massive rescue attempt involving many agencies continued as Sikaria was then loaded into an ambulance and brought to a Care Flight helicopter, which transported her to Washoe Medical Center in Reno.
Preliminary reports from authorities at the scene labeled the incident as an attempted suicide.
The highway was closed for more than two hours after the crash was reported shortly before 11 a.m. Both lanes reopened to traffic at 3:32 p.m.
Sikaria was heading east when she saw a spot in the barrier on the ledge outlooking Christmas Valley filled with sandbags and turned around, according to Jeff Michael, chief of Lake Valley Fire Protection District.
She made another turn when she neared the chink in the highway’s armor and aimed her car for the opening, Michael said.
“She didn’t apparently make any attempt to stop, no skid marks or nothing,” Michael said. “She drove off, according to witnesses.”
One witness said the Toyota was westbound when it turned left toward the sandbags, blocking eastbound traffic as if it were attempting a U-turn, when it went forward and plunged off the highway, said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Mike Stewart.
She was discovered unconscious but regained some coherency during the rescue, witnesses said. Identifying the vehicle was difficult at first, since it looked like it had been crumpled into a metal chunk at a demolition yard.
“I think God helped her survive,” Michael said. “She had a lot of luck.”
A child’s car seat was in the vehicle. Using the car’s license plate number, authorities were able to contact Sikaria’s husband and ensure her children were not in the vehicle, Michael said.
The sound of the crash caught the attention of many valley residents. Jim Copel was using a sander on cabinets outside a house off South Upper Truckee Road when he heard what sounded like an avalanche. He turned the sander off and continued to hear the clash of metal and rock.
“It was just one big boom after another,” he said.
Taylor Buttling looked out the window of his Egret Way home and saw the beginning of the accident.
“I just looked outside and saw this shiny car go over the edge,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it at first.
“It was in the air for quite awhile,” he added. “It just kept tumbling.”
Buttling called 911 before grabbing a digital camera to photograph the incident.
David Case, who lives on the corner of South Upper Truckee Road and Egret Way was watching his dog outside before his attention was drawn to the area below the highway.
“Boy, it was breaking apart the entire time down. It was a terrible thing,” he said.
Rescuers approached the wreckage from the valley floor and highway. The route from Christmas Valley was painstaking, as manzanita brush reaches up to 10 feet high.
“I’ve tried hiking up it and it’s horrible. That brush is up to your neck,” Buttling said.
Training for such incidents occur often, said Michael, who said it was his fourth time responding to a vehicle going off the highway in that area. In those past cases, most of the occupants survived, he said.
The department also conducted training on extrication of 11 wrecked cars in June thanks to donations from Welcomes Auto Body and Emerald Bay Towing. Capt. Brad Zlendick said the training on cars parked on their noses and sides help firefighters in responding to incidents.
Sikaria was wearing a seat belt.
“If there’s ever an accident that shows the value of seat belts, this is one,” Stewart said.
Caltrans is preparing for a $4.1 million upgrade of the highway barrier east of Echo Summit to the top of the old Meyers Grade starting in 2009, said spokesman Mark Dinger.
The sandbags were in place to shore up a historic wall containing original stones when the highway was first built, Dinger said.
Caltrans workers will likely investigate the hole to see whether a better barrier can be built, but the slim width of the highway makes the task difficult, Dinger said.
“It doesn’t lend itself to a lot of temporary fixes,” he said.