S.F. socialite killed when trailer hits car
She dies instantly in head-on crash
Thursday, August 18, 2005
A popular San Francisco society maven and philanthropist was killed Wednesday in Napa when an 18-foot trailer loaded with drilling equipment broke loose from a truck bed and slammed head-on into her car.
Erika Hills, 61, was pronounced dead shortly after the 11:24 a.m. crash, which closed the two-lane Silverado Trail, a half-mile north of Oak Knoll Avenue, for three hours.
The 5-ton trailer cut right through her car, killing her instantly, according to Officer Gerald Rico of the California Highway Patrol.
Hills, whose husband is from the family that started Hills Brothers coffee, was southbound on the Silverado Trail, five miles from her home in Napa, when the accident occurred.
The "fifth wheel" trailer, pulled by a three-ton Dodge Ram truck heading north, began whipping back and forth, according to witnesses. It somehow disconnected from the bed of the truck, skidded left and slammed into Hills' 1997 Mercedes.
"It went from the front fender through the Mercedes, almost splitting the car in half," Rico said. "The left doors were ripped from their hinges, and she was ejected from the vehicle."
The trailer, which was hauling equipment used to drill caves for wine cellars, then struck another car traveling behind Hills, flipping over the vehicle, Rico said. Terrance Koh, 32, and Anita Chin, 33, who were visiting the Wine Country from Washington state, were treated at St. Helena Hospital for minor injuries.
The truck driver, 29-year-old Arnulfo Avina of Angwin, was not injured.
The accident happened on a straightaway. Alcohol or drugs do not appear to be factors, and there were no reports of speeding, according to Rico. It could not be determined whether Hills was wearing a seat belt, but, Rico said, it would not have made a difference.
"We're investigating how the fifth wheel became detached from the truck," Rico said. "No charges are pending at this time, and no arrests have been made. "
Hills was known and beloved, according to friends, for her bohemian flair and sense of fun despite the fact that she circulated among San Francisco's high society. She hosted social events and fundraisers at her Tuscan-style villa in Napa and at her other home in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood, but, friends said, she never took herself too seriously.
She was a prominent supporter of the Opera and was on the board of Cal Performances in Berkeley. Among her friends was Gottfried Helnwein, a German artist who recently had a show in San Francisco.
A home design expert, she once owned Erika Hills antiques in St. Helena. Her husband, Austin Hills, once worked for the family business, Hills Brothers coffee, and is now co-proprietor and chairman of the board of Grgich Hills Cellar winery in Rutherford. Family members have made regular appearances through the years in the society columns.
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