Speed, shifting load suspected as possible causes of I-95 crash

Tanker moved erratically before plunge off overpass

January 15, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl, Gus G. Sentementes and Lynn Anderson | Stephen Kiehl, Gus G. Sentementes and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The tanker truck that exploded on Interstate 95 Tuesday was moving erratically, and its load of gasoline was shifting violently, before the truck plunged rear-end-first from an overpass onto the highway, according to investigators and witnesses interviewed by police.

Police made preliminary identifications yesterday of three of the four people killed in the crash, using dental records, personal effects found at the scene and vehicle identification numbers that survived the inferno.

The victims' names were not released pending confirmation.

Charred wreckage from the crash site was moved to a warehouse where state and federal investigators began to reconstruct how the tanker fell from the Interstate 895 overpass onto I-95 northbound in Elkridge. Sifting for clues among the vehicles' remains is not an easy task.

"They're just a pile of metal," said Chief Gary W. McLhinney of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, the agency leading the investigation. "It's something I've never seen in my career in law enforcement, and very tragic."

The tanker was owned by Texas-based Petro-Chemical Transport, according to an official from the National Tank Truck Carriers trade group. Petro-Chemical's president, James Reid, was flying to Baltimore last night to assist in the investigation, his wife said in a telephone interview from their home in Plano, Texas.

"They have agreed to cooperate with the National Transportation Safety Board in whatever investigation is conducted," said John Conley, vice president of the trade group. He said the company would not comment last night and will let the NTSB speak for the investigation.

Petro-Chemical tankers have been involved in at least two other accidents in the past two years, according to published accounts. In June, a company tanker - part of a 380-tanker fleet - overturned and spilled 350 gallons of gasoline near Dallas. In August 2002, another tanker overturned and spilled more than 5,000 gallons of fuel outside St. Louis. No one was injured in those accidents.

All lanes of I-95 were reopened to traffic early yesterday, about 12 1/2 hours after the explosion shut down the highway and backed up traffic for 20 miles. Damage to the road and overpass was minimal, officials said, and repairs made yesterday were mostly cosmetic.

Meanwhile, investigators sketched out a harrowing scenario. They said two witnesses saw the tanker moving erratically on I-895 as it approached the overpass. The truck hit a guard rail and then apparently scraped along a Jersey wall on the overpass for about 50 feet before jumping the wall.

"The rear end slid up the wall and over the wall," McLhinney said. "It's like a balancing beam at that point, with all the liquid going to the back of tanker, pulling it down."

For a few seconds, the tanker end dangled over I-95 while the cab remained on the overpass. But the loaded tanker's weight pulled it over, and it fell like an arrow onto the highway.

"Some of the liquid in that vehicle had begun to slosh," said Maj. Michael Fischer of the Maryland State Police, who was on the scene Tuesday night. "Once that liquid begins to pool, it reaches a point of no return. ... It's going to pull the trailer over the guard rail."

Four other vehicles, all registered to businesses, were then engulfed in flames: two tractor-trailers, a pickup truck and a car that might have been a taxi, police said. One tractor-trailer was owned by Swift Transportation Co. of Phoenix, Ariz.; it was identified by a partial license plate. The company said it believed the driver was killed.

"It's pretty somber," said Jim Mahoney, vice president of risk for the company, where drivers were talking yesterday about the accident and consoling each other. "It's a difficult time."

The driver of the other tractor-trailer, which was owned by PGT Trucking Inc. near Pittsburgh, escaped unharmed. The driver, who was not identified by the company, leapt from his cab and ran from the flames, police said. He returned to Pennsylvania yesterday.

"He's doing fine - as good as can be expected," said John Crane, who operates the company's facility at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Authorities said they reviewed film from cameras at the Harbor Tunnel and are certain the tanker did not pass through. Instead, they said, it entered I-895 from Childs Street at the southern end of the tunnel.

Authorities could not say whether the tanker was full or how much gasoline it was carrying, but they were trying to determine how the fuel was sloshing around inside. Evidence of such "load shifting" could be seen in at least 50 feet of tire marks on the shoulder of I-895 before the overpass, police said.

"When liquid starts shifting back and forth, it becomes uncontrollable," said Sgt. Krah Plunkert of the state police.

Authorities also are looking into the tanker's speed as a possible factor in the crash. A former NTSB senior adviser said barriers inside tankers keep fuels from shifting back and forth, but not side to side.

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