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Fatal Pileup Snarls Golden Gate Bridge 

       Evening commuters backed up to downtown S.F. 

A speeding Mercedes crossed the center divider on the Golden Gate Bridge yesterday afternoon and caused a fatal multi-car pileup that partially closed the span for nearly four hours, the California Highway Patrol said. The high speed crash caused a chain reaction accident involving nine other vehicles, turned bridge approaches into a huge parking lot and clogged miles of San Francisco and Marin County roadways. 
  A 38 year old woman driving a BMW southbound died instantly in the head-on crash. Authorities withheld her name until relatives could be notified. 

    The driver of the Mercedes Benz sedan, Joseph Cowan, a 56yearold Novato man, suffered major injuries and was admitted to Marin County General Hospital with multiple facial fractures and lacerations. A nursing supervisor said he was in serious condition after six hours of surgery last night. The CHP said Cowan was northbound in the fast lane: at "a high rate of speed" when he encountered slower traffic and changed lanes into the southbound lane to pass the northbound traffic. Cowan's Mercedes was so completely shredded that it was not immediately clear to onlookers whether it was one vehicle or two rammed together. 

    At least two other victims, men in their 20s, were admitted to San Francisco General Hospital, one with a spleen injury and the other with a possible collapsed lung. They also had cuts, scrapes and bruises. The small Honda they had been riding in was destroyed, its front end smashed all the way back to the rear of the engine compartment. 

    Bridge authorities said the accident occurred at 3:23 p.m., the very beginning of the afternoon commute rush. The bridge was rendered impassable immediately. It took more than an hour to get one lane of traffic moving again, and the entire span was not clear until 7:13 p.m.-by which time frustrated commuters were backed up all the way into downtown San Francisco and Marin City. 

    In Marin County, Highway 101 was packed with an unbroken line of cars. In San Francisco, grid locked vehicles stretched back along Lombard Street to Van Ness Avenue, while side streets that lead to the span were choked as far back as Golden Gate Park and the Marina. Commuters quickly realized they were stranded and shut off their engines. Some got out of their autos to stretch their legs, while others listened intently to their car radios, hoping for news of progress in clearing the roadway. On Crissy Field Avenue, a muni bus driver sat resignedly in his No. 29 Sunset bus while his solo passenger waited outside, smoking a cigarette. The driver, Terry Mauricio, an 11year veteran of the city transit system, said he was heading toward the bridge at 4:13 p.m. when he became snared in the backup. 

    "I called Central as soon as I got stuck," he said with a shrug. "They told me there was an accident on the bridge and that I should wait until it was clear." Mauricio was not alone. Dozens of Golden Gate Transit buses and private charter lines-filled with passengers bound for Santa Rosa, San Rafael and other North Bay destinations-were hemmed in by the traffic. Lucky northbound bus passengers fortunate enough to get back to the Ferry Building were able to catch ferryboats to the North Bay. Unfortunately, one of Golden Gate Transit's ferries had been taken out of service earlier, so commuters experienced delays up to an hour even by using the marine route. Nor was Highway 101 the only one affected by traffic problems. A pair of smoky grass fires on Altamont Pass shut down Interstate 580 for part of yesterday afternoon, forcing the Highway Patrol to escort drivers over the busy pass in groups of 15 or 20 cars at a time. 


By Charles Burress and Bill Wallace
Chronicle Staff Writers
San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday, June 25, 1996


  "Return Home Safe"