Investigators trace fragments of crash

Vehicle ID numbers, records, autopsies may reveal cause of accident

January 15, 2004|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

A single chunk of metal with a number stamped into it. A car door dented in the shape of a tractor-trailer's massive tire. A few ounces of human blood.

These fragments survived the 2,000-degree gasoline fire after Tuesday's deadly tanker accident on Interstate 95.

To the untrained eye, the relics of four people's deaths seem tragically sparse and meaningless. But to accident experts, they unlock a treasure chest of other information: driver's licenses and medical charts, cargo manifests and repair records, logbooks and even credit-card receipts.

Combining these records with computer programs and old-fashioned detective work, investigators from the Maryland Transportation Authority, state police, medical examiner's office and National Transportation Safety Board expect to piece together the chain of events that led to Tuesday's tragedy.

"You're trying to put together a puzzle, and sometimes you get the complete puzzle and sometimes you don't," said Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. Tony Sivo, who recalls a similar conflagration that closed I-95 south of Philadelphia on Memorial Day weekend 1998. "A lot of evidence is destroyed, but you can't control that. You have to work with what you have."

The starting point, Sivo and others said, is the vehicle information number, unique as a fingerprint for every car or truck sold in the United States. The number is emblazoned in so many places - the dashboard, doors, firewall and mechanical parts - that investigators can almost always locate it and use it to identify the vehicle owner.

Maryland investigators have said the gasoline tanker truck, two tractor-trailers, pickup truck and car involved in Tuesday's crash were all registered to businesses. That helps reconstruct the accident because businesses keep records that ordinary citizens don't.

Every time a tanker or big rig pulls into a highway weight station, inspectors make safety checks that are entered into a U.S. Department of Transportation database, said Donald Montgomery, a Fort Worth, Texas, expert on hazardous materials transportation. Every time a police officer investigates a tanker or semi accident, the report goes into the database.

The federal government requires the vehicles' owners to keep detailed maintenance, repair and annual inspection records. And the drivers fill out daily inspection reports, kept on file at their bases.

"All of that would help determine whether there was a mechanical problem," Montgomery said.

The crash would not have occurred if the tanker hadn't plunged off the Interstate 895 overpass onto the highway below, so that truck and its driver will be the primary focus, said Maj. Michael Fischer, head of the Maryland State Police transportation safety division.

The federal government requires transport companies to keep files on their drivers. The files must include accident reports, even if they involved the drivers' own cars; results of pre-hiring drug tests and any random tests done later; and a doctor's physical, performed at least once every two years, certifying that the drivers don't have any unsafe medical conditions.

High blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, blackouts, or drug or alcohol problems can cause a driver's commercial license to be yanked, Montgomery said.

In spite of the intense fire, an autopsy can also reveal a surprising amount about the drivers' conditions, said state medical examiner David Fowler.

Even in severe burn cases, there is usually blood, urine or tissue left to test for drugs or alcohol, Fowler said. In some cases, spinal and eye fluids are also tested for toxic substances. Yesterday, forensic experts were able to draw blood samples from each of the four victims. Test results will be available in three to five days, Fowler said.

"It doesn't matter that they were burned," he said, noting that it takes two hours at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to cremate a human body.

The fire almost certainly destroyed the tanker driver's paper logbook, a record of every stop, Sivo said. Some companies now use laptop computers for their logbooks, and though a laptop would have melted, it's possible that some of the data had been sent to the driver's headquarters before the crash, he said.

The tanker manifest, which shows how much gasoline the driver loaded at the day's start and how much was unloaded at each delivery stop, was likely also reduced to ash, Sivo said. But workers at every stop should have their own manifests showing that information.

The log and manifest are crucial, said Merritt Birky, the National Transportation Safety Board's former senior adviser on fire and explosives. They could show whether the tanker's remaining cargo was evenly distributed among its separate compartments or whether there was too much weight over one set of wheels. Maryland investigators say the tanker's load shifted just before the accident. Birky said an unbalanced cargo could be the reason.

He noted that if the driver was driving too fast, the shifting load would have forced the tanker into a rollover.

The logbook could show whether the driver had been on the road longer than federal rules allow, Sivo said. The log and other paperwork, such as credit-card records, could lead investigators to people who saw the driver that day.

A chance word to a store clerk might unravel the mystery.

"Maybe he had the flu and was saying how bad he felt, sick to his stomach or whatever, but he had to finish his run," Sivo said. "That's why the investigators are going to want to talk to everyone."

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