Two days after that 2006 crash on Highway 49 at Lime Kiln Road, 76-year-old Toshimi was nearly pronounced dead as Charlie prepared to sign a “Do Not Resuscitate” order for the love of his life.
Toshimi, though, took a turn for the better and pulled through.
But the life they had known was as shattered as the glass lying along the asphalt, next to the heap of twisted metal left in the wake of a 19-year-old man who reportedly ran a red light.
“It's been four years of hell, thanks to that damn wreck,” said Charlie Heist, a south county resident now approaching his 82nd birthday. “It ruined her life and it ruined mine.”
Toshimi Heist, Charlie's wife of nearly 60 years, died Dec. 12. She won't show up among the statistics in car crash fatalities, but Charlie Heist considers his wife to have been a casualty of dangerous driving on a treacherous thoroughfare.
“She would still be here,”
Heist said, “if it hadn't been for that crash.”
In 2005, nine people died in car crashes on the 15-mile stretch of Highway 49 between the Bear River and Grass Valley's Empire Street.
In the five years that followed, though — thanks largely to stepped-up enforcement by the California Highway Patrol, the installation of safety measures by Caltrans and an intense awareness campaign led by the Citizens for Highway 49 Safety — the frequency of fatal crashes has dropped significantly, as a total of nine people perished on the very same stretch since.
But some of those who travel it regularly say Highway 49 should hardly be considered a safe passage.
Citizens take safety into own handsBruce and Deborah Jones, another south county couple, had just mailed out their Christmas cards and were headed off to spend the holidays in Oregon, as they drove north on Highway 49 near Clivus Drive, just about two miles north of Combie/Wolf roads in south county, in the late afternoon of Dec. 19, 2003.
Behind the wheel, Bruce saw a southbound car crossing the double-yellow lines into his lane.
“I remember thinking,
I can miss this,'” Bruce Jones said. “And then I got hit.”
The impact of the head-on collision is still felt to this day, whether in the myriad injuries from which Deborah Jones still suffers — trouble recognizing faces due to brain trauma, pain from floating disk fragments in her neck or soreness from broken ribs and a fractured sternum — or the piles of paperwork from the long legal battle over the crash or the cause they've since embraced as Highway 49 safety advocates.
“I'll never be the same,” said Deborah, who was not breathing when Bruce — a former firefighter — fought his way out of his side of the truck and rushed to his wife's side. “I could hear him screaming for me, but I couldn't answer him.”
Two years later, as the Joneses continued to pull the pieces of their life back together, they found a calling of sorts right on the front page of the local newspaper, reporting on the 11th fatality of 2005 on Highway 49 between Auburn and Grass Valley.
Julie Trathen, a 57-year-old woman from Orangevale, and 18-year-old Christopher Leighton of Auburn died from injuries in a collision between Combie and Cameo roads — about a mile south from where Bruce and Deborah Jones had been struck — on Dec. 19, two years to the day of their own accident.
“I fell apart,” Deborah Jones said. “That was the day I called The Union to see what we could do, just believing we've got to do something.”
The Joneses called for a community meeting at Bear River High School to discuss how Highway 49 had become such a deadly drive in 2005.
More than 300 people, including family members of loved ones lost to the crashes, came out to address the issue with the local and regional officials on hand.
And soon thereafter Citizens for Highway 49 Safety — and a committed community at large — got to work, raising awareness, advocating for safety measures and fighting for funding needed for increased CHP patrols.
Caltrans comes throughMany community members called for concrete center dividers to be installed up and down Highway 49 to curtail the head-on crashes occurring when cars crossed over into oncoming traffic of the two-lane roadway.
But Caltrans argued that plan was not feasible for many reasons, most notably being the amount of work involved and the amount of money needed to fund it.
Instead rumble strips were cut into the center and shoulders of the road, hoping to alert drivers when they were treading into dangerous territory.
“With a Jersey wall (or divider), you need clearance on each side of the road and with the logistics of creating that space on Highway 49, it's not something that can be done quickly,” said CHP Sgt. Mike Lawrence, who has been patrolling the Grass Valley area since 2000.
“Caltrans wanted to do something as an emergency type of project. And with (rumble strips) there was no change in the physical rendering (of the highway), it involved just striping and the impressions in the road, which was a plan that could be put through much more quickly.”
Bruce Jones said the penultimate project, consisting of four-lanes separated by a concrete divider, could cost upward of $200 million.
Nearly one year after Citizens for Highway 49 safety called that first meeting, Caltrans crews began work on making the safety corridor — a designation that had already required drivers to use headlamps during daylight hours — more safe.
Three months and $482,000 later, Caltrans' immediate safety improvement project was complete.
“It was completed in March 2007 and included work from Combie and Wolf roads north to Crestview (just south of McKnight Way in Grass Valley),” said Carol Herman, a spokesperson for Caltrans. “Accidents dropped about 30 percent in the two years following the project's completion and fatalities were reduced by one half in those two years.”