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Two die in fiery Hwy 49 collision

Emergency personnel work to free victims of a crash on Highway 49 between Flume Road and Portagee Lane north of Columbia. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Two people died and another was seriously injured Thursday afternoon in a fiery head-on collision west of Sonora.

The accident happened about 3:30 p.m. on Highway 49, north of Fraguero Road, near Portagee Lane.

A blue 2005 Toyota Tacoma pickup was heading south about 50 to 55 mph when, for unknown reasons, it swerved into the northbound lane. It collided with the front-end driver’s side of a white 1995 Buick sedan, which was traveling north about 45 to 50 mph.

The pickup truck came to a rest blocking both lanes of traffic and the smoking, mangled sedan was partially shoved onto an embankment. The vehicles were surrounded by shattered glass, car parts and other debris.

The truck’s driver, Laura Zahm, 57, of Jamestown, suffered major injuries and was airlifted to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto. Her passenger, Lucas Miller, 18, of Sonora, was taken to Sonora Regional Medical Center with minor injuries.

The names of the two people in the Buick, a man and woman, were not released pending notification of relatives.

Sonora resident Lyla Whitford was driving behind the Buick and barely avoided the crash. While on the phone with 911, she saw the sedan “burst into flames.”

Whitford and nearby residents tried to put out the blaze with a hose and fire extinguishers.

“I know you’re not supposed to put water on a car fire but what the hell are you gonna do?” said Denis Gurney, who ran to the scene with a hose after hearing an explosion from his house. “I’ve never seen a car burn like that.”

Susan Gurney said she couldn’t see anyone inside the Buick because it was filled with black smoke but saw Zahm trapped in the Tacoma’s driver’s seat. Her airbag deployed.

“Thank God the pickup never caught fire,” Denis Gurney said.

Emergency responders were able to recline the seat and remove Zahm from the pickup.

The area was blocked off for several hours while emergency crews cleaned up and investigated the collision.

The accident is still under investigation, the CHP said. 

Everyone was wearing seat belts, according to the CHP.

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