More than a year since a terrible accident south of Bishop last August took the lives of four athletes coming and going from a Mammoth high-altitude training camp, a final report puts the responsibility for the crash on the shoulders of one driver, 17-year-old Natalie Nield of San Diego.
The accident occurred on the night of Aug. 9, 2010, when the Ford Expedition Nield was driving south veered off the highway onto the shoulder of U.S. 395 “for an unknown reason,” flipped, rolled, caught fire and crashed into an oncoming, northbound van carrying 14 more athletes and an adult driver.
The fiery crash killed two student athletes in the Ford — Nield, and Amanda Post, 18 — and an adult passenger, John Adams, a running coach who once lived in Mammoth. The driver of the van, Wendy Rice, 35, of San Diego, also died in the accident.
The accident left two student athlete passengers of the Ford — Drew Delis, 19, and Derek Thomas, 19 — seriously burned and permanently injured. Several students in the van suffered injuries and the driver of a third vehicle minimally involved in the accident also was injured.
Inyo County Sheriff’s Deputy Shane Scott was recently awarded a medal of valor for his part in rescuing some of the survivors. A Bishop off-duty volunteer firefighter, John Williamson, who came upon the accident just minutes after it occurred aided Scott and is currently being examined by the California State Association of Firefighters valor awards committee as another candidate for a similar award (See MT Nov.25, 2010, p. 20-23, for more on Williamson).
The accident has been termed “the most serious accident in Inyo County history,” and the cause of the accident has remained a subject of intense interest, even a year later.
Although the report will not be released to the public but only to the “parties of interest” (including the victims and their families and related legal firms and insurance companies), Bishop CHP officer Dennis Cleland summarized the report to the MT Tuesday.
“It was determined that the driver of the Ford Expedition, Natalie Nield, 17, was headed southbound on U.S. 395 at a minimum speed of about 85 mph when she encountered two big rigs ahead of her, occupying both lanes, with one big rig was passing the other. The two rigs were going slower than Nield, and she failed to gauge their speed correctly.”
Nield then took “evasive measures” and steered the Ford onto the right shoulder, Cleland said, then turned “aggressively” to the left, which allowed the Ford to go into an “unrecoverable” slide sideways, across the southbound lanes. The Ford then hit the center divider and continued its slide, moving into the northbound lanes. At some point during the roll and slide, the Ford caught fire for an unknown reason.
By the time the Ford came to rest on the east shoulder of the northbound lanes, it was upside down, with its undercarriage in the air, still on fire.
At the same time, a northbound van full of California Baptist University cross country runners bound for a Mammoth high altitude training camp collided with the Ford, causing the already compromised fuel tank on the Ford to explode.
Another vehicle, a Subaru driven by a young Oregon woman named Tanager (no last name), was behind the van, which had just passed it. The Subaru collided with the van, and this collision inflicted minor injuries to the Subaru driver, Cleland said.
By the time emergency responders were able to get close to the accident, Ford passengers Amada Post and Natalie Nield were dead, as was the driver of the van, Wendy Rice. Ford Passenger John Adams survived the crash but was on life support until October, several months after the crash.
Cleland said the accident was “the worst accident in Inyo County to date” and hopes people can learn from that terrible night.
“There can be such a high price to pay for being distracted, or for driving beyond your ability,” he said.
An interdisciplinary team called Multi-agency Investigative Team, or MAIT, created the final report. It was released to Bishop CHP on Oct. 5, and to the “parties of interest” on Oct. 10.
It is possible that civil lawsuits associated with the crash will reveal more details of the accident, but Cleland said there would be no further release of information about the accident to the public.