Photos from the Vault

Runaway truck ‘disintegrated’ when it flew down the Cuesta Grade, crashed into SLO home

Ken Van Valer walks out of the ruins of a office that was destroyed by a fatal semi-trailer truck crash on the Cuesta Grade near San Luis Obispo in 1984.
Ken Van Valer walks out of the ruins of a office that was destroyed by a fatal semi-trailer truck crash on the Cuesta Grade near San Luis Obispo in 1984. Telegram-Tribune

Imagine the strength it took for teamsters to cross the Cuesta Grade via stagecoach more than a century ago — standing on the brake, pulling the reins of their horses.

Today, the average driver has more horsepower under the hood of a car than a six-horse stagecoach. The road, now Highway 101, has been improved, but the grade can still be a dangerous place.

A previous Photos From the Vault column documented the runaway semi-trailer truck that careened down the Cuesta Grade and passed through Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo. Miraculously, the man behind the wheel survived the crash with only minor scratches.

Tim Ryan wrote this story of a less fortunate truck driver, which ran in the Telegram-Tribune on Jan 25, 1984. Jon Hastings and Bill Schlotter contributed to the article.

Trucker killed in Cuesta runaway

A truck driver was killed and another man narrowly escaped death Tuesday night when an 18-wheel tractor-trailer rig swerved off the Cuesta Grade and plowed through an office, apartment and a 150-foot tree.

The driver of the truck, Rene Martinez Sanchez, 30, of Ontario was killed in the crash that ripped apart the cab of his truck and spilled his cargo of cardboard boxes over a wide area, the Highway Patrol said.

“The truck disintegrated when it ran through the building,” CHP dispatcher Tino Torres said today.

It took a search team three hours to find Sanchez’s body under several cardboard boxes and parts of truck cab.

“The truck looks like it exploded when it hit the tree,” said CHP Sgt. Dick Russell.

The truck was carrying several thousand pounds of flattened cardboard.

A resident at the scene said when the truck hit the building it sounded “like a plane had come through the roof.”

“It was a runaway truck,” Torres said. “He just lost control, period. Whatever the cause is, I can’t tell you.”

The accident occurred about 7:30 at 1415 El Camino Real, near the base of Cuesta Grade at Stagecoach Road, three miles north of San Luis Obispo.

The truck left skid marks for about 100 feet where it swerved across two oncoming traffic lanes before crashing through a building that housed the United Realty office in front and a rental apartment in the rear. The building was once the Cuesta Motel.

The truck then destroyed a small greenhouse before knocking over a large eucalyptus tree and sliding across the tree over San Luis Obispo Creek. The tree acted like a bridge allowing the truck to cross the creek and travel about 100 feet up the eastern side of the bank, Russell said.

Debris from the crash was spread over one acre of the steep, heavily forested area. The truck’s engine was found 15 feet south of the crash site.

198401-24gradecrash
Firefighter surveys the scene of a fatal semi-trailer truck crash on the Cuesta Grade near San Luis Obispo in 1984. The wheels of the truck lie amid cardboard boxes. Tim Ryan Telegram-Tribune

Ken Van Valer, 65, who lived in the apartment attached to the realty office, was in his kitchen when the truck hit.

“I was … wrapping a steak when it hit. I couldn’t guess what had happened. I thought a plane had gone through the roof or something.”

He was not hurt.

Van Valer said he started to go outside to investigate when he realized, “There was no front door.”

Vn Valer, a collector of chess sets, lost more than 30 sets in the accident as well as several plants and other personal items. He kept a large garden next to his residence, which also was demolished.

Van Valer had rented the apartment for about four years and said he “wasn’t sure if he had any insurance to cover his losses.

“I’m only a renter,” said Van Valer, a food service worker at Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo.

“Boy, it looks like a bomb exploded here,” he said. “But I guess God was on my side, huh?”

“And to think I was complaining about a leak in the roof. Now I’d just like to have a roof. What a mess.”

Van Valer spent Tuesday night with his sister who lives in San Luis Obispo.

The 40-year-old building is owned by Pete Del Vaglio, broker of United Realty Co. He had been using the building as an office for about two years, he said.

The truck destroyed about half of the 2,500-square-foot building but missed Del Vaglio’s expensive business computer system and files that were on the opposite side of the office, he said.

The broker does not know yet if the building can be restored.

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