Gasoline-laden tanker truck jackknifes, explodes Driver severely burned, no others hurt

June 01, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

A 27-year-old truck driver from Pennsylvania was seriously burned yesterday when his gasoline tanker veered off Westminster Pike, overturned and burst into flames, spewing more than 7,000 gallons of blazing gasoline for 300 feet along a drainage ditch.

The heat from the crash was so intense it melted vinyl siding on one house about 75 feet from the highway. The inhabitants, however, escaped unharmed.

Baltimore County hazardous materials units immediately built makeshift dikes to prevent the gasoline from draining down the slope into a tributary of Liberty Reservoir while firefighters smothered the blaze with foam.

Meanwhile, a MedEvac helicopter flew the driver, Terry Ritz of New Freedom, Pa., to Francis Scott Key Medical Center in Baltimore. A spokesman said he was in serious condition in the burn unit. Mr. Ritz also received head injuries in the crash, police said.

The accident occurred just before 6 a.m. on state Route 140, the Westminster Pike, west of the I-795 interchange. Charred trees, blackened grass and the skeleton of part of the tanker marked the path of destruction. The truck was owned by McCullough Oil Service, of Glen Rock, Pa.

Richard Gale, 33, said he had just been awakened by "a rumbling and rolling sound," when his daughter, Danielle, 13, "burst into our bedroom yelling that a truck was on fire."

Mr. Gale said that when he looked out of a window, "All I could see was smoke and orange flames." The family fled through the garage at the rear of the house on Amy Brent Way.

"There was just a wall of fire burning down the road," Mr. Gale said.

Next door, John L. McKay, 52, said he was awakened by hammering on his front door. By the time he reached the door, however, "all I could see was a wall of flames 6 to 8 feet high all down the street."

Mr. Ritz, the driver, apparently had pounded on the door, and by the time Mr. McKay reached it, the driver had gone to the middle of the road beyond the fire. "I yelled to him that I would call 911," Mr. McKay recalled yesterday, several hours after the blaze was extinguished. There was a bloody print on Mr. McKay's door and a trail of dried blood droplets dotted the path to his house.

Baltimore County Fire Department Capt. Patrick T. Kelly said Mr. Ritz was mainly burned on his back and shoulders.

Referring to the sparse traffic on the road at the time of the crash, Captain Kelly said, "The biggest advantage to this was that it happened on Memorial Day."

Battalion Chief Gary Warren, of the Fire Department HazMat Unit, said the majority of gasoline tanker accidents result in fires rather than explosions. In a situation like yesterday's, it was important for the HazMat team to dam the drainage ditch quickly because rain was a possibility, and that would have sped the gasoline into the reservoir, he said.

Any type of oil or gas spill is a danger to the environment, Chief Warren said. The tanker carried 8,800 gallons of gasoline and from 750 to 1,000 gallons remained in the section of the tanker that had not melted, he said.

Volunteers respond

Units from the state Department of Environment and the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management also responded to the accident, which closed Route 140 for hours.

Volunteer fire companies responded from Reisterstown, Glyndon, Boring, Arcadia, Owings Mills, Pikesville, Liberty Road, Butler and Chestnut Ridge, as well as from three Carroll County communities.

They were aided by paid units from Randallstown, Garrison, Pikesville and a foam unit from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and Baltimore county's hazardous materials unit based in Brooklandville.

Michael W. Kendall, a county sanitarian, said the soil will be tested to determine the penetration of the gasoline and the contaminated earth will be dug out.

An earth mover arrived and began digging to create a stronger dam until the cleanup can take place.

Officer Roy Jarrell, of the county police Western Traffic Division, said his preliminary investigation determined that Mr. Ritz apparently fell asleep at the wheel "and where the road curved left, he went straight," crashing into a guard rail.

The tractor trailer jackknifed, rolled over once and burst into flames, Officer Jarrell said.

The officer said he does not know how Mr. Ritz manage his escape from the burning truck.

'I hope I'm that lucky'

Dave Bosley, who also drives for McCullough Oil and is a member of the Butler Volunteer fire company, studied the wreckage yesterday and said: "If it happens to me, I hope I'm that lucky."

Mr. Bosley said he had finished a delivery run and was on his way home when he stopped at the Butler fire house.

While he was there, he saw the column of smoke billowing into the sky. Mr. Ritz was delivering gasoline to stations in Taneytown, when the accident occurred, Mr. Bosley said.

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