Driver walks away after car crashes, burns in Highway 49 canyon mishap in Auburn

Early indications are teen motorist left road while looking for dropped cellphone
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - A car left the road Wednesday on Highway 49 near Auburn, plummeted over a cliff, crashed and burst into flames. But the driver and lone occupant told police he was able to walk away from the crumpled, burning wreck. The crash took place just east of the Lincoln Way-Highway 49 intersection at about 1 p.m. on the first sharp turn into the American River canyon. Auburn Police Traffic Officer Chris Forman said that the driver - Trent Churchill, 18, of Loomis - indicated before being taken away by ambulance that he had dropped his cell phone just before the car left the road. Churchill was the only occupant of the 1999 Lincoln Continental. Forman said Churchill indicated that he reached over to pick it up and realized at the last second that the car was leaving the two-lane road. The car exited Highway 49, hit a four-foot-high steel reflector sign but missed a telephone pole by about five feet. Forman said marks on Jordan Lane - a one-lane side road running parallel to Highway 49 - showed Churchill's Lincoln was airborne as it traveled downhill. Below Jordan Lane, the car rolled end-over-end about 30 feet down a steep embankment before coming to rest on its roof. Churchill told authorities he was momentarily unconscious after the car came to rest. While the roof was crumpled, he regained consciousness before the car burst into flames and was able to get out by himself. Ken Ludwig, an Auburn resident who lives nearby, was one of the first on the scene. "I heard the bang and saw the smoke," Ludwig said. "There are always accidents on this corner." Forman said he saw the black plume of smoke at the crash site and feared the worst. "This could have ended very badly," Forman said. "I suspected a fatality the way the smoke was coming out of the canyon but glad to see it is not."