Diesel tanker burns

Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Ron Kistner, left, and Randy Sander of the Cape Girardeau Fire Department worked the scene when a diesel truck exploded into flames, in the background, which quickly spread into a culvert ditch beneath Interstate 55 where the firefighters stood, Tuesday, March 27, 2007. (Diane L. Wilson)

A driver suspected of being intoxicated hit a tanker hauling as much as 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel Tuesday. The fiery wreck sent giant plumes of black smoke into the air visible throughout most of Cape Girardeau.

The accident occurred at 1:12 p.m. on northbound lanes of Interstate 55 just before the William Street overpass at mile marker 96.

By 2 p.m., Cape Girardeau firefighters had gained control of the blaze, which quickly spread into a culvert ditch beneath I-55. Firefighters sprayed foam and built a mud wall in the culvert to prevent flames from following the leaking diesel fuel farther south.

Onlookers say the accident was caused by a white convertible driving the wrong way down the northbound offramp at exit 96. Two exiting motorists swerved to miss the driver before he jerked his own vehicle to the right into oncoming traffic on I-55 and collided with the tanker truck.

The driver's name is being withheld. He was to be held overnight at the Cape Girardeau Police Department on suspicion of driving under the influence. Formal charges may be filed today.

Cape Girardeau Fire Department worked the scene of a truck hauling diesel fuel overturned while traveling northbound on Interstate 55 and exploded into flames just before the William Street exit at Cape Girardeau, Tuesday, March 27, 2007. (Diane L. Wilson)

Chris Millbrook, 30, of Schaumburg, Ill., was driving home from his daughter's birthday party in Arkansas. He said he was following the diesel tanker in the right lane at a distance of about 15 feet as they approached exit 96.

Millbrook was preparing to pass the tanker when he saw it swerve to avoid something ahead.

"He pulled left really hard, so I swerved left too, because I didn't want to hit whatever it was. That's when the back of his truck just jumped up into the air and then it came down sideways and just slid across the highway," he said.

Millbrook and others said the tanker rolled over three or four times before skidding to a rest. They said the tanker was already on fire before it stopped sliding. Millbrook said "shrapnel" from the sliding tanker flew back and pelted his car as he pulled off to the ditch on the grass median in the center of the highway.

The tanker driver, Terry Church, 38, of Perryville, Mo., then staggered out of the vehicle, Millbrook said.

"His face was bloody, his hands were bloody. He just kind of staggered as he walked up the hill before a couple of guys grabbed him who had seen the whole thing," Millbrook said.

Onlookers said workers from the nearby Victorian Inn rushed out with buckets of ice and wet towels for the burned, bleeding driver. His injuries, which include a head wound, broken leg and burns, were not considered life-threatening, according to the Cape Girardeau Police Department.

Observers said the driver of the white Sunbird SE convertible walked away from his car, which was flattened on its passenger side and rear, without a scratch.

"He started walking to the road like it was no big deal. The first thing he said was, 'Hey, can I use your cell phone so I can get a ride?' He was worried about being late to work. I was like, 'You're not going to work today,'" said Amanda Crocker, 22, of Cape Girardeau, who was near the Sunbird driver on the offramp.

Sandy Alvarado of Sikeston, Mo., was the first driver on the offramp to swerve to miss the convertible. Alvarado, who plans to begin training to become a police officer in July, said the accident made her wish she could do more.

"You just want to be a part of it when you see something like this. I just want to do anything I can to help out," she said.

The Cape Girardeau Fire Department said all city units responded to the fire. The department requested and received aid from the Gordonville Fire Department, East County Fire Protection District and Jackson.

Off-duty Cape Girardeau firefighters and firefighters from Scott City manned the stations in case of another fire.

Fire chief Rick Ennis said the combustible nature of the leaking fuel posed an unusual problem.

"Because it is a combustible liquid, you have the problem of the fuel running and flowing as it burns. Gravity does its job and the drainage ditch is designed to shed water, and it doesn't know the difference between water and fuel," Ennis said. "But that's what makes it dangerous."

Ennis said firefighters were worried about the blaze spreading to the nearby Victorian Inn. He said his firefighters sprayed foam on the blaze first to contain it before dousing the flames with water. Each fire engine has a small amount of foam in its tank that can be supplemented by additional reserves at the station. Firefighters also used foam from the truck positioned at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.

"This is not the typical house fire we have every day. But this is what we train for. In fact the platoon on today actually just got done doing foam training. So I think it went well," Ennis said.

I-55 northbound was reopened to traffic shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday.

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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