Trucker blacks out and goes on frightening ride on Highway 99 in Modesto

Kim Kit Murti was heading south on Highway 99 Friday morning, hauling a big-rig load of furniture when his whole world went black.

Murti loss consciousness, touching off a chain of collisions that stretched four miles along the six-lane freeway until another trucker took heroic steps to bring the runaway tractor-trailer to a halt.

It was about 10:15 a.m. when the 48-year-old trucker from West Sacramento approached the Kiernan Avenue overpass, CHP officer Jonathan Peregoy said. Murti's 26,000-pound, twin-axle 2006 Peterbilt was at the 55 mph speed limit in the far right lane. In the lane next to him was Michael Arp, 43, of Manteca, driving a 2006 International big rig.

That's when Murti blacked out, investigators said. His rig drifted right onto the shoulder then veered back to the left, sideswiping Arp's truck and trailer.

Murti's rig barreled on across all three lanes until it began scraping the concrete divider and sparks started to fly, igniting a series of grass fires that stretched between Pelandale and Standiford avenues.

Witnesses told the CHP that the sparks sprayed into the northbound lanes.

Firefighters from the Modesto Fire Department and the Salida Fire Protection District doused the flames in about 20 minutes.

Damon Gordon watched the drama unfold from the cab of his 1999 International big rig as he followed Murti's runaway.

"It didn't appear like it was slowing down at all," the 35-year-old trucker from Modesto said Friday evening. "(Murti's rig) kept bouncing off that cement guardrail -- I think about 10 to 15 times."

Gordon said traffic slowed all around as drivers tried to get out of the way. For a time, he lost sight of Murti, but was able to make up the distance between them.

Murti's tractor-trailer approached Briggsmore Avenue, where the freeway veers left.

But the truck didn't turn.

It crossed the three lanes again and started up the Briggsmore exit, Peregoy said. Before reaching the top, Murti drifted left, crashed through a road sign and plunged down the embankment back toward the freeway.

By that time, Gordon had caught up.

"It looked like it just jumped off and over that embankment," Gordon said. "It didn't look like it even touched the grass. I was just amazed by the whole thing.

"I tried calling 911, but it was busy. I guess everyone was trying to call, too."

'What can I do to stop this'

Murti's truck hit the bottom of the embankment and shot across the southbound lanes and hit the center divider again. By then the truck had slowed to about 10 mph, Peregoy said.

That's when Gordon pulled alongside and spotted Murti slumped over. His head was up and to the side between the door and the driver's seat.

Gordon said he thought, "What can I do to stop this?"

He accelerated, drove about 50 yards ahead of Murti's rig and parked his truck at an angle, making sure that if Murti's rig hit his, it wouldn't hit the truck's tank, which was filled with fertilizer.

Gordon got out of his cab. Murti was unconscious and his rig was moving, scraping along the concrete divider. Gordon sprinted back to Murti's truck, ran along the passenger side and jumped on.

"I had to run at full speed to catch up," Gordon said. "Another driver, who had also stopped, saw I couldn't get the passenger door open, so he handed me a tire iron."

Gordon smashed the passenger window and reached in to pull an air brake on the dashboard. Just as he did, Murti's rig lightly touched Gordon's truck and stopped.

Emergency crews arrived within minutes and pulled Murti out.

Gordon's heroism ended the chain of collisions and kept the incident from becoming much worse, said CHP officer Tom Killian.

"We firmly believe this big rig could've re-entered the roadway, possibly causing more serious collisions or further injuries," said Killian. "If it wasn't for this good Samaritan, this big rig could've kept going."

Murti appeared to have suffered a seizure while driving but sustained only minor injuries during the ordeal, Killian said. No one else was hurt.

Murti was taken by ambulance to Doctors Medical Center for medical evaluation. A nursing supervisor said late Friday that Murti was not in the hospital.

Peregoy said traffic at the crash site was stalled for about an hour.

Looking back at his experience, Gordon said the adrenaline was pumping and he didn't have much time to think before taking action. He just chalked it up to one big-rig driver helping another.

"If that was me, I wish someone would do that for me," Gordon said.

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.