Tractor-trailer hauling 8 cruise missiles hits I-70 bridge, overturns

Public wasn't in danger

foul play not a factor in crash, officials say

October 06, 2001|By Todd Richissin, Michael Dresser and Laura Cadiz | Todd Richissin, Michael Dresser and Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

MYERSVILLE -- A tractor-trailer carrying eight Navy cruise missiles filled with rocket fuel clipped the wall of a bridge on Interstate 70 and tumbled down an embankment yesterday, causing hours-long traffic jams and the evacuation of nearby houses.

Nobody was injured, and officials said foul play was not suspected in the incident.

The accident occurred about 8:45 a.m. as the eastbound rig was passing through a construction zone about 10 miles west of Frederick, according to Sgt. T.O. Rouse of the Maryland State Police.

The driver was crossing a bridge in a narrow, single lane when the bed of the truck slapped the side of the bridge, veered off the highway, slid about 80 yards down a steep ravine and flipped on its side.

"The load shifted, and the driver lost control of the truck," Rouse said. "The vehicle either went over or through a guard rail."

The driver was identified as Danny L. Harkey, 49, of Joplin, Mo. He was cited for negligent driving, according to police. Harkey was driving with a passenger, Daniel C. King, 39, of Flower Mound, Texas.

The truck is owned by a private firm, Tri-State Motor Transit of Joplin, Mo. On Thursday night, another of the company's trucks overturned in West Virginia while carrying 42,000 pounds of military explosives.

Yesterday, authorities evacuated 26 houses within a 1-mile radius of the accident scene and barred planes from flying within three miles of it.

The interstate was closed about three miles in both directions, causing huge traffic jams that spread to nearby roads. Authorities re-opened lanes to westbound traffic about 11:30 p.m., but the eastbound lanes remained closed early this morning. The Army's 749th Explosive Ordnance Detachment arrived from Andrews Air Force Base and was using a crane to transfer the missiles to a second truck.

Alan Williams, a member of a Maryland Department of the Environment hazardous response team, said that the missiles were loaded with rocket fuel and stored in individual containers but that the weapons were not armed with warheads. The missiles were covered with a tarp and strapped to a flatbed trailer.

Called SLAM-ERs -- for Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response -- the weapons were headed from Missouri to the Atlantic Ordnance Command, Detachment Earle, in Coltsneck, N.J., according to Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman.

Developed by McDonnell-Douglas, now part of Boeing Co., the 14-foot, 4-inch weapons are long-range, precision-strike cruise missiles fired from such aircraft as F-18s and P-3s, according to Cathy Partusch, a Navy spokeswoman.

Partusch said the public was never in any danger of an explosion, adding that the missiles were "well-secured and containerized."

Partusch said Tri-State is "only one of many" trucking companies the military uses to transport munitions. The trucks are tracked with satellite equipment and are required to have two crew people, including the driver.

State and local authorities were not notified in advance of the shipment, but Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said that under federal regulations the Pentagon only has to alert states of cargoes of radioactive materials or chemical-based weapons.

Glendening, who had been in nearby Frederick, toured the scene shortly after the accident and was briefed by federal officials.

"This was an accident, pure and simple. There was no connection to terrorism," he told reporters. "I know that in these times people are concerned and wonder about every incident, but it is clear that this was nothing more than a traffic accident."

Still, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 shaped the context of the accident and had many people worried, especially those who were evacuated.

Linda Quesenberry, a 38-year-old nurses' aide from Myersville, left home to go grocery shopping and wasn't counting on getting back until late last night.

"With all the excitement that's going on all over the world, you don't know if it's terrorists," she said. "All sorts of things go through your mind."

Many of the town's nearly 1,400 residents went to the Myersville Volunteer Fire Department, where they were fed turkey and mashed potatoes.

"It's a quiet little town, and this is quite a bit of excitement for them," said Mayor Wayne Creadick. "[Residents] have concerns, but we're taking care of them."

Ralph S. Nelson, executive vice president and general counsel of Tri-State and its parent company, said the driver reported that he cut a turn too much and nicked the edge of a bridge with the trailer, pushing the truck off the road. He said there was no connection with the West Virginia accident, which occurred Thursday about 6 p.m.

Nelson said accidents such as the ones here and in West Virginia usually occur about once a year.

"I'm not very happy about having two of these in 14 hours," he said.

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