‘It feels like there’s a black cloud.’ Crash-prone area has Atwater businesses feeling heat

Gas station owner Kamal Dhaliwal leaned against a counter, shaking her head as few cars pulled up to pump gas on Friday, the day after a big rig struck the Highway 99-Applegate Road overpass.

The now closed overpass is the main commuter route between the bulk of Atwater’s residents on the east side and the numerous businesses, including Dhaliwal’s am-pm, on the western side of Highway 99. It’s also not the only crash that has hurt business in the past couple of years.

The end of the week is typically busy as drivers fill up for the weekend. “I’m down 50 percent right now,” Dhaliwal said. “I have noticed. Usually on Friday, I’m jam packed.”

“There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s frustrating,” she said. “That’s the last thing we need.”

A 2013 Kenworth big rig towing an excavator on a flatbed trailer was traveling north at about 6:40 a.m. Thursday in the left lane on Highway 99, underneath the Applegate Road overpass, when the excavator’s boom arm struck the underside of the bridge, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Four girders on the overpass were damaged, according to Caltrans spokesperson Rick Estrada. Three are expected to be patched up while the state of the fourth one remains unclear. He stressed the overpass is safe to pass under, but officials wanted to keep additional weight off the top of it.

Estrada said Caltrans does not expect to close down any other surface streets or highway lanes while the overpass is repaired, and repairs have been expedited. “The expectation is that it will be closed at least a month,” he said.

Investigators determined the driver, identified as 34-year-old Atwater resident Charles McMahan, loaded the excavator incorrectly.

Unfortunate accidents or other incidents that affect businesses in that area have been common in the past two years.

The southbound Applegate Road exit was closed for about a month and re-opened in June 2017 after a fiery crash involving tanker truck driven by Kamkyo Ramon Gnotsavath, 57, was headed to the Arco gas station on Bell Lane on May 23, 2017, to deliver 8,600 gallons of gasoline, officials said. The man died in the crash.

Business owners in the area said the tanker truck crash was not only tragic for the family of the driver, but it also put a crimp in their business.

Envy Fine Clothing felt the economic pain, according to employee Pamela McClain. “That really, really took us in a nose dive,” she said. “We are just recovering and this (overpass crash) happens.”

McClain said she noticed it took her twice as long as normal to get across the highway without Applegate Road. That’s a problem if shoppers decide not to stop in for clothes because it’s too much of a hassle, she confirmed.

Business was slow Friday. “(The manager) held off the girls for work today,” she said. “This time of year it’s critical because we’re rolling into the Christmas season.”

Envy was trying to get by with sales over the phone or through social media, she said.

A similar, but not deadly, crash happened this June in the same area. A 2009 Freightliner being driven by 48-year-old Oakland resident Steve Edward Anderson was traveling south on Highway 99 when he attempted to take the Applegate Road off-ramp at about 7:10 a.m. June 12, CHP said.

AK Applegate Road 4
Crews finish pouring a new section of sidewalk near the McDonald’s at the intersection of Bell Drive and Bell Lane in Atwater, Calif., on Friday, June 23, 2017. The section of sidewalk is near the southbound Highway 99 exit 195 which reopened Friday after being closed for about a month following a fatal tanker truck crash and explosion. Andrew Kuhn

The off-ramp was closed until about noon that day.

Atwater Councilmember Brian Raymond said the crashes that have closed the narrow Applegate Road overpass have taken a toll. “It hurts the businesses. It hurts the city,” he said. “It feels like there’s a black cloud over there. It definitely is worrisome.”

The Southern Pacific Railroad is also nearby, and accidents involving the train can gum up traffic as well. Raymond said an immediate fix remains unclear in a part of town where traffic can be slow even on good days.

“I pray to God that (businesses) can survive it,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge impact to residents commuting around town. That’s a narrow overpass anyways, so traffic gets bottle necked.”

Then there were the nearly four weeks in August when the Atwater Target was closed because of an alleged arson. Police and fire crews were sent to the Target just after 9 p.m. Aug. 7 after someone set fire to items on the toilet paper aisle, according to police. No injuries were reported, but the store was evacuated because of a large cloud of smoke.

Target 3.jpg
Police and fire crews were sent to the Target in the 1000 block of Commerce Avenue just after 9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, after someone set fire to items on the toilet paper aisle, according to police. No injuries were reported, but the store was evacuated because of a large cloud of smoke. Atwater Police Department

Atwater police announced the arrest of 42-year-old Jaime Rojas of Atwater the next day.

Merced Sun-Star readers expressed sympathy for business owners on Facebook.

“Wow that shopping center can’t catch a break... first the fuel tanker explosion, Then the fire inside Target, now the main road entrance is shut down!” Sandra Rogers wrote on Facebook. “I hope shoppers try alt routes so these businesses can stay open!”