Montgomery County fire officials credited the quick thinking of three Thanksgiving passers-by for helping save the life of a 59-year-old truck driver stranded in waist-high water early yesterday after his gasoline tanker overturned on Interstate 270 and plunged into Seneca Creek.
Robert Kinder of Hagerstown was flown to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda with what state police described as non-life-threatening injuries. He was listed in serious condition yesterday.
About 5 a.m., Kinder was driving a 2000 Mack tractor-trailer south on I-270 between routes 118 and 124 in Gaithersburg when he lost control, authorities said. The tanker struck with a guardrail and jersey wall, sparked a small fire, then rolled over and dropped about 60 feet into Seneca Creek, authorities said.
The fire caught the eye of Washington Fire Department Capt. Demetrios Vlassopoulos, 39, who was heading from his home in Frederick to Engine Co. 18, near Capitol Hill. He pulled over and walked to a highway bridge over Seneca Creek, expecting to see a brush fire.
"I couldn't believe it. I saw an 8,500-gallon tanker truck on its side in the creek," Vlassopoulos said.
He grabbed a light from his truck, made his way down a steep embankment, slid under a fence and met up with two other men who were atop the truck cab. He was surprised to find the driver conscious and standing in diesel-soaked water.
Vlassopoulos immediately called 911 to alert rescue crews of the fuel spill. Then the trio tried to help the driver out of the water - without wading in it themselves - but soon realized he was too weak to walk. That's when Vlassopoulos stripped off his shoes, socks and coat, jumped in the icy water, wrapped his arms around the driver's legs and lifted him so the other men could pull him out.
Minutes later, county fire rescue crews arrived and hoisted the driver up to the roadway to be taken to a hospital.
"I tell you, the driver of that truck has a lot to be thankful for this morning," said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire Department. "Their intervention possibly kept the man from drowning, if nothing else."
Piringer identified one of the other men as Roger Francois of Germantown, and said the third rescuer was a paramedic with the New York City Fire Department, heading home for Thanksgiving. However, that good Samaritan left before authorities could get his name.
Kinder works for A.C. & T, a Hagerstown-based company that transports petroleum products, and was on his way to a petroleum-supply terminal in Fairfax, Va., at the time of the accident, according to Dave Harp, a company transport supervisor. With the exception of fuel used for driving, the tanker was empty, authorities said.
As hazardous-materials crews worked to contain the small spill, Vlassopoulos got back in his truck and headed to work, where he showered, changed his clothes and then went to help out with a house fire.
"I don't think I did anything heroic," he said of helping Kinder. "It's just one of those things coming to work. It's no big deal."