SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS (CBS SF) – Caltrans was finally able to reopen southbound lanes of Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains Friday evening after instability and a new slide closed the busy traffic artery completely for much of the day.
CHP in Santa Cruz confirmed that the southbound lanes reopened just before 7 p.m.
A massive landslide on Highway 17 near Vine Hill Road has been causing problems since first blocking northbound lanes on Tuesday. A new slide coupled with dangerous conditions at the earlier site forced authorities to close the highway for hours late Friday morning.
At 10:07 a.m., CHP reported that the huge landslide has closed traffic on Highway 17 between Summit Road in Los Gatos and Granite Creek Road in Scotts Valley. Drivers have been advised to use alternative routes.
Caltrans confirmed just before noon Friday that the highway would remained closed indefinitely.
The continuing instability of the slide that spilled rocks and mud into northbound lanes between Vine Hill Road and Sugarloaf Road has forced the complete highway closure a day after one worker was killed and a second injured in an accident as crews attempted to clear the debris.
While Cal/OSHA completed their investigation into the fatal accident Friday morning and gave Caltrans the green light to resume work on the mudslide area, there is know telling when the slide will be deemed stable enough for the operation to be safe.
Crews have been working on the massive slide that filled the northbound lanes of Highway 17 near Vine Hill Road since Tuesday, trying to remove the tons of rock and dirt that had tumbled onto the main traffic artery through mountains after several days of rain.
A second major artery in the mountains — Highway 9 — was also blocked by a massive mudslide and was to be closed at Redwood Gulch Road until Saturday.
On Thursday, a worker was killed and another injured at the removal site when they were struck by a work truck.
The dead worker was identified as 54-year-old Bobby Gill, a 15-year employee of Graniterock – a Caltrans subcontractor. The injured man was identified as 33-year-old Stephen Whitmier of San Jose.
The accident happened shortly after 12 p.m. right as KPIX’s Maria Medina was finishing an earlier live report on the slide. Near the end of the report, a car can be heard honking. It turned out that was a driver trying to get the attention of a CHP officer to inform him of the accident.
“A woman driving on Highway 17 was honking and screaming and yelling and she just wouldn’t stop,” Medina said later. “She was trying to get the attention of a CHP Officer.”
The driver, who was too shaken up by what she had witnessed to talk on camera, told KPIX 5 privately she was driving past the mudslide when she saw a construction worker crushed beneath the wheels of a dump truck.
But what she didn’t see was the second worker who was trapped but still alive beneath that same truck.
“It’s extremely, extremely tragic. It touches close to home,” said CHP Officer Trista Drake. “Obviously, these people are standing on the side of the road putting their lives at risk every day.”
CHP officers and firefighters worked feverishly to free the injured man. Meanwhile, the crash victim’s co-workers watched helplessly, overcome by emotion.
“The workers were visibly shaken up. It was such a sad thing to witness,” said Medina.
The injured man was actually pinned under the work truck in the accident. Once he was extricated, the worker was transported to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
Several mudslides have hit in the same area in recent weeks during the steady string of storms dumping rain in the region.
“This is definitely close to one of those act of God type of slide areas,” explained Caltrans engineer Devin Porr Wednesday.
The mudslide that came barreling down onto Highway 17 Tuesday was the third slide in the last several weeks.
“This is the biggest mudslide I’ve ever been involved with and have seen on this highway,” said Porr.
Caltrans says even if they had put a catch system for mudslides in the problem area prior to this week’s storms, it may not have done any good.
“The amount of material in this slide was unprecedented,” said Porr.