Caltrans worker killed on Hwy. 101
By Linda Goldston
A Caltrans worker filling potholes in the rain on Highway 101 in South San Jose was killed in a chain-reaction accident Tuesday -- a tragic reminder of the dangers of battling storms and weather-related damage.
The death of Gilroy resident Sean Merriman was the first of a Caltrans employee this year, and it came on just the second day of National Work Zone Awareness Week, held to try to reduce deaths in highway work zones.
The 32-year-old Gilroy resident had worked for the California Department of Transportation for three months. He would have turned 33 in May.
His mother, Jacquelyn Merriman, said he had been waiting to work at Caltrans and was happy about the job.
"This job was going to help him get on with his life," she said by telephone Tuesday night from the Gilroy home she shared with her husband, Craig, and their only son. "He was learning things he had never learned before, and he was looking forward to the opportunity to pursue his dream of driving a truck."
His loss has created a void for many, she said, including a fiancee.
"I'm feeling a lot of things at this moment," she said. "He was a wonderful gift to his father and I."
Merriman's death came as damage from the siege of storms continued to mount, from mudslides and crumbling roads to flooded gutters and streets. Highway 17 was closed briefly Tuesday morning, and San Jose crews were still trying late in the day to drain flooded Zanker Road at Brokaw Road.
Merriman was part of a three-man crew working in a northbound lane of Highway 101 near Hellyer Avenue about 1:20 p.m. Tuesday when a flatbed tow truck smashed into a Caltrans vehicle, pinning Merriman between two Caltrans trucks, officials said. Two co-workers were able to jump to safety.
The California Highway Patrol did not identify the tow truck driver but said he voluntarily submitted to a blood test to determine if drugs or alcohol were a factor in the crash.
CHP Lt. Mike Dust said it appeared the tow truck driver intended to go around the work crew but "maybe waited too long and by the time he realized it, it was too late."
According to the CHP, the number of collisions, injuries and deaths involving motorists in highway work zones had been falling since 1999, with deaths in the zones dropping from 54 in 1999 to 35 in 2004. The agency credits its "Slow for the Cone Zone" public awareness campaign with bringing the numbers down.
"It's not just the workers who get killed," said Caltrans spokeswoman Lauren Wonder. "The public gets killed, too. Unfortunately, it was one of ours this time."
But there were no ready answers about Tuesday's fatal crash.
Traffic was light and the morning's downpours had slowed when the crash occurred, authorities said.
When Caltrans employees are working on a highway, warning signs are posted on the roadway and a safety truck is parked in front of the workers to try to prevent cars from crashing into them. In Tuesday's crash, the tow truck hit the Caltrans safety truck so hard that it was pushed toward the workers, trapping Merriman between the safety truck and the asphalt truck.
Dust said the CHP believes the tow truck driver was traveling about 65 mph.
The death came as heavy rains continued to saturate hillsides and roadways throughout the Bay Area, causing minor street flooding and more mudslides, from San Mateo to Santa Cruz.
Between 4 p.m. Monday and 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1.13 inches of rain fell in San Jose, 0.65 inches in Fremont, 0.57 inches in Redwood City and 1.71 inches in Santa Cruz.
There is a chance of more showers through Saturday, Henderson said.
With storms leaving hillsides waterlogged, Santa Clara County were monitoring reservoir levels.
Half of the Santa Clara Valley Water District's 10 reservoirs have already filled to capacity. Based on weather forecasts, two were expected to overflow Tuesday night and this morning, said district spokesman Mike Di Marco.
Anderson Reservoir -- the biggest in the district -- and Coyote Reservoir are expected to fill in the next 48 hours, Di Marco said. If they do, extra water will flow back into Coyote Creek, making waters in the creek faster and more dangerous for people nearby.
Los Gatos officials reported two small mudslides that forced traffic to be rerouted around them for a brief time while crews did cleanup.
A part of Sierra Road in the San Jose foothills was closed as the soil gave way and a section of the road dropped six inches.
Elsewhere in the state, two Central Valley levees failed Tuesday morning, flooding a trailer park, threatening other homes in Merced and inundating farmland south of Sacramento. There were no immediate reports of injury or the extent of the damage.