A fiery crash south of Buellton claimed the life of a big-rig driver Thursday afternoon, but emergency personnel were able to avert a greater tragedy by rescuing three people from a car that was dangling precariously over a freeway bridge.
One by one, a 10-year-old girl, a 10-week-old baby girl and a 40-year-old woman were extricated from a dark-colored BMW sedan that clung to a concrete guardrail above Nojoqui Creek in the Three Bridges area of northbound Highway 101, south of Santa Rosa Road.
All three were taken to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. Their names and the extent of their moderate injuries were not released.
The baby girl was "alive and kicking" when she was taken out of the mangled vehicle and placed in an ambulance, said CHP Officer Danny Maher. The other girl and the woman were taken to the hospital by helicopter.
The big-rig driver - whose identity also was not released - was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, which occurred about 2:40 p.m., the CHP said.
Traffic on Highway 101 was shut down in both directions into the night, as rescue workers cleaned up the wreckage and Caltrans assessed damage to the freeway bridge.
The violent collision blew out chunks of the concrete guardrail on both sides of the bridge.
At one point, northbound Highway 101 traffic was reported backed up to Glen Annie Road in western Goleta, more than 20 miles away.
Southbound freeway traffic also was congested in the Buellton area, along with Highways 154 and 246, as commuters sought out alternate routes.
The rescue effort was aided by a group of Navy Seabees from Port Hueneme who were stuck in southbound traffic near the accident. They were able to use a forklift they were transporting to help prevent the BMW from sliding off the bridge.
According the California Highway Patrol, the northbound gravel truck, traveling in the fast lane, struck the BMW from behind and then careened off a bridge and into the creek adjacent to the freeway, where it burst into flames.
The BMW was driven into the concrete guard rail. A tow truck stabilized the car to keep it from falling off the bridge.
Smoke from the burning truck could be seen for miles.
Hazardous materials crews from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department were checking the creek for spilled diesel fuel, and state Fish & Game officials were called in to assess any damage to wildlife.
Eight fire engines, two water tenders, and the county fire helicopter responded, said county fire Capt. Ken Murray.
Between 30 and 60 gallons of diesel from the truck's external tanks spilled into the creek, and crews diverted the flow downstream and used dispersing agents on the fuel, he said.
A Calstar air ambulance also responded as well as the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.
The crash caused heavy damage to the bridge, and CHP reports said it would remain closed until it was inspected by Caltrans engineers and determined to be safe.
Staff Writer Julian Ramos and photographer Leah Thompson reported from the scene.