By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
After a long day at work at Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP), RN Kimberly Houtz got in her car and began driving home on Highway 101, much like any other day. Ahead of her, a semi-truck turned in front of on-coming traffic, causing her to swerve onto the shoulder. Another car slammed into one of the semi-truck trailers, becoming trapped underneath. What she didn’t know at the time, was the driver of that trapped vehicle was a fellow coworker.
“I saw a semi turn across in a small break of traffic in front of me. I instantly drove off the left lane onto the shoulder. The car in front of me locked up their brakes instantly and started to swerve off on the shoulder, but it appeared the trailer of the semi was going to be over enough for him to miss it. It was then his car started to straighten up with brakes still locked up. Instantly I saw a second trailer come into view. It was like a very slow movie that I had already watched and knew what was going to happen next. I believe I was screaming ‘oh my god’ in my truck before the car even made contact with the semi. The car with the brakes still locked up slid right under the second trailer and I barely missed the back end of the trailer as it continued to turn into the farm on the right hand side of the road,” RN Houtz recalls.
The crash looked so bad, she assumed the driver would be dead but if there were small children in the back seat, they may have survived. That’s when her training kicked in.
“Once I got my truck stopped, I grabbed my stethoscope off the passenger seat, threw the truck in park and ran as fast as I could to the crash. I tried to look into the car from the front, side and back but there was too much smoke and metal all smashed that I quickly realized I was going to have to crawl under the semi to get any view. The entire car was under the semi. Cars were moving around the semi in the fast lane when I stopped two and asked them to stay put to keep traffic stopped so I could go under. I saw a car on the right hand side of the road with a girl crying on the phone. I asked her if she was calling 911 and she said yes. I ran back to the semi and started to climb under,” she said. “There was smoke everywhere, liquid dripping down from the containers on the trailers and metal bent and lying everywhere. The door on the passenger side appeared to be mostly ripped off. I climbed upward into the passenger seat of the car as much as I could get when I found two hands. Instinctively, I grabbed them and felt for a radial pulse. There was one. I was so relieved and began screaming, ‘My name is Kim and I am a nurse. You are alive so relax and don’t worry. I am here with you and we will get you out. I am not leaving you.'”
She tried to get a better view of the trapped person and started moving metal out of the way.
“I grabbed a piece of bent metal and it must have once been the glove box because it was then that a stack of pay stubs fell out directly on the ground in front of me. Gray in color with STATE OF CALIFORNIA written across it over and over and my heart sank,” she said.
Realizing she probably knew the accident victim, she hesitated to open a pay stub to find the name.
“It felt like 10 minutes but I know it was only a few split seconds before I was able to bring myself to open the checks to see what name would appear in front of me. I opened the check, saw the name (Humberto Ayala) and just began screaming, ‘Ayala, I am here. It is Kim from work and I am here. Hang on. I am going to stay with you and get you out. Don’t try to talk or move. Just stay relaxed.’ It was then I felt three small squeezes on my hand. I told him I was letting go for one second so I could go get more help but I would be right back. When I climbed out, I saw people starting to circle the accident with phones out recording. I yelled for someone to help me, but not one person was willing,” she recalls. “I went back under the truck and grabbed Ayala’s hand and there was still a pulse. It felt like (longer) but I later learned it was about eight minutes when a firefighter arrived and climbed under with me. I told him he was still alive. He said, ‘We have to get out because they are going to lift the semi and pull the car out.'”
Emerging from under the trailer, she saw people circling the accident, phones in hand, recording the scene.
“I was so shocked. I remember hearing someone yell to the crowd to stop recording and back away. The tow truck was hooked to the semi and the back of Ayala’s car to the fire truck. When the semi was lifted, the firetruck backed the car up. I was immediately at the driver’s seat of what was now a convertible,” she said.
The impact of the accident sheered off the top of the car and knocked the driver’s seat back flat.
“I felt Ayala’s carotid artery and there was no pulse. I reached over and undid the seat belt (and) quickly began to rip buttons off the shirt and open the shirt up to look for any bleeding. When the shirt was opened, I noticed Ayala still had his vest on. I had a small bit of relief with this thinking just maybe the vest took a large amount of the impact and would be enough to save his life. I took the front part of his vest off while the fire department prepared the Jaws of Life to cut him out. I wanted him ready for CPR immediately. A firefighter came over and was ready to cut him out. Once he was out, CPR immediately began and continued until he was taken away by ambulance,” she said.
According to the fire department, they believed RN Houtz “had command of the scene and therefore followed her lead and crawled underneath the trailer to assist.”
Unfortunately, Officer Ayala succumbed to his injuries the same day as the accident, Oct. 17, 2018.
“While trying to save his life, all I could think of was getting him out. I knew I could not do anything while he was trapped but I wanted him out as fast as possible so we could do everything possible. When he passed away, I was sad that I was not able to save him. I felt so guilty for not being able to succeed especially since I am a nurse and my job is to save people. I was defeated,” she said. “This experience taught me just how quick our lives can change. I was almost in the accident myself and I know had he not been driving in front of me, it totally could have been me under that truck. I think being a nurse, I have a good grasp on how fast death can happen, but this really put it into perspective more.”