All Frank Gonzalez saw was searing white lights. Then everything went dark.
When he regained consciousness, he was mid-sentence, yelling his way back to reality.
“Breathe, Frank! Breathe!” he shouted. Once he confirmed he could, in fact, breathe, Gonzalez, 31, became aware of the nightmarish scene beyond the windshield of his white Dodge Ram truck.
He had just been in a head-on collision along Lakeville Highway, an infamous road southeast of Petaluma that’s so prone to violent and deadly crashes that many have dubbed it the new “Blood Alley.” That nickname once belonged to neighboring Highway 37 until a median divider was installed, increasing safety.
The brutal nature of Lakeville’s most recent string of accidents has garnered attention from politicians and officials throughout the region, and prompted pressing discussions on what safety measures can be put in place quickly before the death toll rises higher.
Gonzalez, however, was one of the lucky ones.
Just before 4 a.m. on July 26, a few hundred feet past Sleepy Hollow Dairy on the way to his ironworking job in San Francisco, Gonzalez was drilled by an 18-year-old – coincidentally also driving a white Dodge Ram – who had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Astonishingly, aside from a few scrapes on his hands and a bruise on his left shin, both men were OK.
“I’ve been through a lot of stuff,” Gonzalez said. “The hard times, it just (went) out the window when that happened. I’ve been in a few car crashes, but that one was just unreal.”
Gonzalez said he first noticed the car was steadily drifting left over the double-solid line that splits the two-lane corridor. From his own experience living off Stage Gulch Road, the thoroughfare that joins Lakeville Road on Highway 116 at Ernie’s Tin Bar, he could tell the driver closing toward him was dozing off.
“He wasn’t all over the road,” Gonzalez said. “He was just drifting off. So I had just passed Sleepy Hollow and, either he woke up or he just bounced (off) the K-rail, and he shot this way towards me.”
Suddenly, the truck did a hard cut to the right and briefly went off-road into one of the ranches beside the highway, Gonzalez said. Hoping that would be the end of it, he instinctively veered right to distance himself from the out-of-control driver.
Then, he did what exactly Gonzalez was worried he might do, and the driver overcorrected again — this time to the left — dead center into his truck.
All of this happened in a matter of seconds on a highway with speed limits as high as 55 mph.
Warriors for change
Thankfully Gonzalez and his partner, Tara Lanatti, live on the same ranch as her mother. For Lanatti, 26, to be able to pick him up from the wreckage, someone needed to look after their four-month-old daughter Maia, who was born two months early and some days requires extra attention.
Her name means “warrior,” Lanatti said.
“As soon as I came home, I picked up Maia and cried with her and Tara was holding me,” Gonzalez recalled. “This could have been it. It was the real deal. It was a lot of just sitting there (the next day) pondering bills, money and all this just means nothing compared to what could have been. It really hit hard.”