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Police: Reckless driver caused fiery crash

June 12, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

FALLING WATERS, W.Va. -- A tanker-trailer carrying 8,500 gallons of fuel to a Martinsburg gas station burst into flames early Friday on southbound Interstate 81 when it was struck by a car on the bridge over U.S. 11 near Marlowe, W.Va., police and emergency officials said.

Trees and grass were scorched by the fire that erupted from the collision, and nearby homes were evacuated after the accident happened at Exit 23 just before 2 a.m., West Virginia State Police said.

The truck driver, Randy Manning of Cross Junction, Va., was not injured.

The driver of a 2009 Chevrolet HHR rented from Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Martinsburg fled the scene before police arrived and made no attempt to assist Manning and has not been identified, police said.

Latosha Palmer of Hagerstown rented the car and police have interviewed her, but State Police Sgt. T.C. Kearns said "she has not been fully cooperative."

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Dressed in a green T-shirt, cargo shorts and hiking boots, Manning, who said he had been driving a truck for about 14 years, declined to comment about the accident.

The driver of the car was operating the vehicle recklessly while attempting to pass the red 2001 Peterbilt tractor hauling a Heil Tanker trailer owned by Shine Transportation Inc. of Strasburg, Va., police and company owners said.

"The Chevy initially struck the front of the tractor trailer as it attempted to move back in front of the truck during an attempted pass," Kearns said in a press release. "The Chevy then traveled into the guard rail on the left side of the roadway edge and upon doing so bounced back into the roadway striking the tractor trailer causing the tanker rupture and subsequent fire."

The fuel was being hauled from Mechanicsburg, Pa., to the ROCS convenience store and BP gas station off West King Street in Martinsburg, Shine Transportation owners Paul and Bradley Hough said.

At least one compartment of the fuel tanker ruptured in the collision, but the fire eventually melted through the remaining three compartments, fueling extreme heat that reduced the trailer to charred rubble and scorched trees up to 100 feet away. Little more than a sliver of the tanker shell was left by the time the fire was allowed to burn itself out.

Because the fuel contained 10 percent ethanol, the fire proved to be extremely difficult to extinguish, according to the Berkeley County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Responders did not have enough foam and the right type to fight the fire, said Stephen S. Allen, director of Berkeley County's homeland security office.

"If you don't have enough large capacity to spring on it right away -- with the alcohol in it, it's very hard to extinguish," Allen said.

Some of the ignited fuel spilled into the highway's drainage system on the west side of the southbound lanes, scorching trees and a large swath of grass as it traveled north and then east under the interstate.

On the east side of the northbound lanes, the fuel burned more grass and trees, following the drainage system down a hill to U.S. 11. After traveling under the road, the fuel fire ignited a guardrail near the Park and Ride lot. The charred path ended within view of the parking area, but the stench of fuel and oil remained Friday morning.

The collision and fire forced emergency officials to shut down the southbound lanes of Interstate 81 for about 11 hours before it reopened about 1 p.m. The northbound lanes of the interstate opened about 8:45 a.m. and U.S. 11 also was shut down for several hours, causing substantial congestion.

West Virginia Division of Highways crews spread sand on the southbound lanes to soak up what was spilled on the highway between the bridge and where the truck was parked.

A remediation company hired by Shine Transportation took samples to assess whether fuel that didn't ignite had contaminated soil in the crash site area, according to a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection official who responded to the accident.

Carrie Bowers said she was asleep at her home off Carver's Way, within view of the accident scene, when she heard the first "boom" about 2 a.m.

"(At first), I didn't know if I was dreaming it," Bowers said.

The flames "lit up" the bedroom and the apparent explosions shook the house, she said.

"Every time it boomed, the flames got higher," Bowers said.

Residents were evacuated because of the potential for a much larger fire to erupt all at once, said Bedington Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Tommy Newcomb, who said the tanker truck was "a ball of fire" when he arrived on the scene.

Trooper Scott See, who was dispatched at 1:54 a.m. to investigate the accident, reported the car involved in the accident was fully engulfed in flames about 200 yards behind the tractor-trailer when he arrived, Kearns said.

After being told to evacuate by a fireman, Bowers said she went to her parents' house off Grade Road nearby and didn't return until about 8 a.m.

"They were shook up," Bowers said. "I didn't know where else to go."

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