Caltrans worker shares near-death experience on Highway 17

     Victor Diaz was on vacation the wet, rainy New Year’s Eve of 2005 when his supervisor at Caltrans called.      The maintenance crew, which, among other things, keeps local highways clear of debris, was short-handed and Diaz was asked if he was willing to help out.

     Without missing a beat, he grabbed his gear, left his wife and three children -- ages 4, 12 and 15 at the time -- at home, stopped at the yard to get his work truck and headed out to Highway 17.

 

     “There were all kinds of accidents up there,” said the now 41-year-old Watsonville resident. “I knew something was going to go down, but I didn’t expect this.”

 

    Once up the mountain, at Spanish Oaks curve between Laurel and Glenwood curves, he saw a car had spun out in the southbound lanes and was blocking the travel lane. A passing California Highway Patrol officer had seen the same crash, responded to the scene and called for backup in securing the area. Lt. Michael Walker, a 24-year veteran of the CHP, parked his patrol car in the turnout, Diaz said.

 

     Diaz responded, parked on the side of the road behind the accident scene and Walker, turned on his emergency flashers and put out flares to warn oncoming motorists about the hazard ahead.

 

     Diaz and Walker had been talking on the side of the road, when Diaz turned to walk away.

 

     “The next thing I knew, I was thrown into the high lane,” Diaz said. “I tried to get up but I couldn’t. My leg and hip were twisted.”

 

     He looked around and Walker’s lifeless body was lying beside him.

 

     They had been hit. Walker died from his injuries.

 

     The driver of an Audi was rushing to get home to Boulder Creek in time for New Year’s when he lost control, struck Diaz’s truck and sent it hurdling into Diaz and Walker.

 

     The Audi driver also died from injuries he received after impact.

 

     An 11-mile stretch of Highway 17 was named in Walker ’s honor.

 

     Diaz will tell his story, promote driver safety and read a letter from Walker’s wife about life without her husband Thursday in San Luis Obispo , where Caltrans is hosting a ceremony to honor workers killed while on the job.

      

     Since 1924, 171 state transportation employees have been killed while working to improve highway safety. While no Caltrans workers have been killed in Santa Cruz County , Diaz feels lucky to be alive -- now.

 

     “Life has changed so much,” said Diaz, who suffered depression for “a long time” after the crash. While he knows that he followed safety rules to the letter and "did everything right," he used to second guess himself and think about the whether he could've done anything differently to prevent the tragedy that night.

 

     “Why am I alive and (Walker) is dead?,” Diaz asked himself constantly, he said.

 

     He also thought about what life would be like for his family had he died, too.

 

     Now, he doesn’t take life for granted any more, appreciating his family and being alive, he said.

 

     “I’d rather be picking daisies than pushing them up,” Diaz said. “I’m so happy to be here.”

 

     For a long time after the crash, he didn’t want to talk about that night. Now, he speaks freely about it in the hopes of educating drivers about the importance of driving safely, especially in Caltrans work areas, known as "the cone zone."

 

     “If people could just slow down,” he said. “Pay attention. And get off your cell phone. We’re doing our best to keep the road safe for you, return the favor and keep the road safe for us.”

 

 

     Diaz tried to go back to work maintaining the county’s highways, but fear wouldn’t let him. He couldn't bear to be on Highway 17 again.

 

     “I still have fear of the unknown,” he said. “I just don’t want to get run over again.”

 

     After about a year of healing mentally, recovering from knee surgery and nursing an injured hip, Diaz went back to work for Caltrans. Now, he travels up and down the Central Coast, from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara counties,  gathering and processing soil samples at various highway projects.

 

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