Tanker driver says fire was 'terrifying'

Thursday, March 29, 2007
Diesel tanker driver Terry Church, 38, of Perryville, Mo., held up his hands, which were burned when he escaped his diesel truck during an accident Tuesday on Interstate 55. (Diane L. Wilson)

After colliding with a wrong-way driver and rolling over in his tanker three to four times Tuesday, Terry Church of Perryville, Mo., knew he had only seconds to save his own life.

"All I could think was, it's time to get going 'cause this thing's going to blow," said Church, 30.

As Church's rig skidded to a halt on the side of Interstate 55, he could see fuel leaking and feel the heat from the growing fire. The trucker said he feared the worst as his 8,000-gallon load of diesel fuel began to burn.

Anatomy of the crash

"It was pretty terrifying," he said.

Church was lying sideways in the cab of his truck and needed to crawl through the 3-by-2-foot rear window before the entire tanker was engulfed in flames.

"I tried to get out once, and I couldn't fit through the hole. So I tried to get through again and I got through. Whatever I touched was hot, and the thing was starting to catch on fire," he said.

Due to contact with the white-hot metal, Church has second-degree burns on both of his hands and arms. Glass or snarled metal peeled off part of his scalp during the roll. A long, deep wound stretches from the back of his head to his left eye.

"The doctor said I looked like I was scalped, like someone had took the skin and just peeled it all the way back," Church said, pointing to his bandaged head, which required emergency plastic surgery Tuesday.

He also has purple bruises on his legs, a broken rib and a cracked vertebra.

But he's in good spirits.

"You know, I feel pretty good. Better than yesterday. They took that neck brace off, so I'm doing a little better, and I'll be even happier when they take this catheter out," he said.

Church believes the accident could have been worse. He escaped the wreck and was aided by workers from a nearby hotel who gave him wet towels and ice as he waited for an ambulance. He was quickly transported to Saint Francis Medical Center, where he is now recovering.

Church's ordeal came just moments after Franklin Houchins, 32, of Wappapello, Mo., drove the wrong way down the northbound offramp of I-55 exit 96.

Houchins avoided two cars before attempting a U-turn into oncoming traffic. Church, traveling at about 70 mph, swerved left but could not avoid the driver. The back of his rig jumped 6 feet in the air before it flipped over.

Wednesday, Houchins was charged with the class C felony of second-degree assault. His bond was set at $5,000. He was still in custody Wednesday evening.

The charge alleges Houchins operated his vehicle with criminal negligence while under the influence of butalbital, a barbiturate. Side effects include dizziness, light-headedness and impairment of judgment. It is often prescribed for headaches.

Church's wife, Sherry, drove from Perryville after being informed of her husband's crash. She was told Terry was alive, but after seeing the smoldering wreck, wondered whether doctors were just waiting to tell her he was dead.

"We could see that it was burnt. After seeing that, that's when I thought maybe they're just not telling me something," she said. The couple have children aged 14, 11 and 5.

Church says he'll return to work as a driver for Schweigert Brothers Inc. after about three weeks in recovery.

"I'll probably be jittery for the first few weeks. ... I'm probably not going to drive very fast for a little while. I'll drive real slow," he said, laughing.


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