Dangerous Curves

NEWS2Local woman pushes for Highway 9 guardrail after SUV crashes into her home

Five minutes before a GMC Suburban slammed into the back of her home on Dec. 16, 2014, Gayle Silva, 63, says she had a premonition that something big was going to happen. She walked to a separate unit to grab a Bible and stood in her living room clutching it to her chest. It was then that 28-year-old James Campos’s SUV crashed toward her Paradise Park home in the woods below Highway 9, landing upside down, wedged partly inside the rear room of her home.

“At first I just heard a limb snap, which is normal here in the forest,” says Silva. “Then several crashes before it hit and shook the whole house.”

Evidence of the 300-foot plunge is visible on at least four trees in the SUV’s path. The trees slowed Campos’s trajectory, sparing the house and himself more harm. The last tree he hit was just feet from the house and limited the damage to a couple of walls and a skylight.

Although Silva was not physically hurt, she has been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder symptoms ever since, all while keeping CalTrans’ attention focused on her request for a guardrail on Highway 9 directly above her home.

“I couldn’t do anything but sleep for three months,” Silva says. “I had to force myself to get up to shower and eat. This is one of the few places I associate with happiness. This whole thing has shattered all of that.”

This isn’t the first time a car has careened off this S-shaped squiggle of road between Felton and Santa Cruz. Silva remembers that in the 1970s a school bus converted into a hippy travel van tumbled down, demolishing a small building that Silva describes as her dream tree house from her 1950s childhood.

A sporty-looking coup of unrecognizable make is also stationed about halfway down the hill by Paradise Park, the relic of another crash. Someone removed the tires and engine at some point, but left the carcass, which now sports an empty King Cobra 40-ounce bottle in its cup holder.

Silva has bombarded CalTrans with requests to put up a guardrail 300 feet above her home, but it has not been as simple as she hoped.

Roaring Camp’s railroad tracks cross this piece of the road, which poses right-of-way issues for the state agency, according to CalTrans Fifth District Public Information Officer Jim Shivers.

“Federal law states that 20 feet on each side of the tracks is the property of the railroad,” says Shivers. “Our investigators have been meeting with railroad [staff to sort all of that out].”

Nate Goodman, mechanical department manager at Roaring Camp, says he is unsure why installing a guardrail is taking this long, and sympathizes with Silva’s frustration. “I see she has decided to go to the media about this,” Goodman says. “I don’t blame her.”

Roaring Camp has offered to reduce its right-of-way down to 9 feet from 20 feet, if that would help CalTrans build the guardrail.

“As long as we can get trains through safely and the guardrail doesn’t impede the traffic gate arm from lowering properly, we see no problem,” says Goodman. “We are in the business of running trains, not keeping people on Highway 9.”

Shivers told GT on June 15 that CalTrans is working on this issue, and that Silva’s emotional reaction has moved it ahead of other projects. On Friday, June 19 he emailed Silva and others to announce that the project had been approved, but was unable to give a specific timeline for completion.

Explaining the long wait, Shivers cited sorting out details with the railroad as well as staffing limitations at the fifth district’s headquarters in San Luis Obispo. Their office, like others in the state agency, works on citizen requests from an active list of 100 projects at a time. However, there is only one traffic safety investigator, who must sign off on all the projects. Their jurisdiction includes Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties. This means his office must answer to a population of more than 1.5 million Californians.

Shivers says he is appreciative to the railroad for making the meetings with his investigators productive so they could get the mission at hand completed.

“We are appreciative that they are being cooperative with us to do this service not for this one citizen but for the greater good,” Shivers says.

Silva was ecstatic when she heard the news. “Thank God! It’s about time!” she says.

CalTrans’ formula for rating the priority of a project measures collisions by “incidents within the past 10 years.” By this standard, Campos’s vehicle was the only one to have plummeted seemingly from the sky onto Silva’s property, and may have not warranted action on their part. Her persistence therefore, clearly had an effect on them sticking with this cause.

PHOTO: A car plunged down a steep ravine and into Gayle Silva’s Paradise Park home. She’s been asking for a guardrail for months. Kevin Silva

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