Carrier given a poor rating

Petro-Chemical `deficient' in accidents, agency says

But overall, graded `satisfactory'

Transport owned tanker that exploded on I-95

Howard County

January 16, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl and Rona Kobell | Stephen Kiehl and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The company that owns the tanker that exploded on Interstate 95 this week received a "deficient" accident rating from a federal safety agency because its trucks have been involved in a high number of crashes in the past few years.

Texas-based Petro-Chemical Transport's 300 trucks were involved in 30 accidents in the past year, though none as serious as the explosion Tuesday that killed four people and shut down part of the East Coast's major thoroughfare for four hours.

The number of accidents led to a rating of 97 on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's 100-point scale, on which 100 is the worst score and zero the best. However, because the company scored well in other safety categories, including driver training, its overall rating was satisfactory.

"You're seeing accidents, but the accidents aren't all the result of the driver or the carrier," said Andy Beck, a spokesman for the federal agency. Beck said it reviewed Petro-Chemical's operations a year ago and did not find significant violations.

The company's president, James H. Reid, arrived in Baltimore yesterday to visit the tanker driver's family and meet with investigators. Reid said the accident was the worst since he became president in 1987 and the company's first to be investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"Our primary concern is that we take care of the family and we deal with the people that are affected by this tragedy," Reid said in an interview while traveling to the Finksburg home of the tanker driver, 64-year-old Jackie M. Frost.

In addition to Frost, authorities identified yesterday another person killed in the crash - 62-year-old Maurice Durschlag of Glen Burnie, the driver of a pickup truck that was consumed by flames. Marge Durschlag, the victim's sister-in-law, said he was returning home Tuesday from a job installing tile and that he is survived by his wife, Sandy, three children and six grandchildren.

Authorities said it could be days before they are able to confirm the identities of the other two victims.

Investigators returned yesterday to the section of I-95 in Elkridge where the explosion occurred, continued to evaluate burnt wreckage in a warehouse and attempted to retrace every step taken Tuesday by Frost.

"The obvious challenge is the fact there was a tremendous amount of fire, a tremendous amount of heat and a tremendous amount of damage," said Chief Gary W. McLhinney of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, which is leading the investigation. "It's not a typical accident investigation by any stretch."

Shortly before the accident Tuesday, the tanker driver picked up a load of premium gasoline at a Citgo distribution center near the southern end of the Harbor Tunnel in South Baltimore, investigators said. They would not say if the driver received a full or partial load of fuel before entering Interstate 895 from Childs Street.

Such evidence could be key to determining why the tanker truck was moving erratically on I-895 in the seconds before the crash. Investigators believe the load of fuel was shifting from side to side inside the tanker - as evidenced by tire marks on the highway pavement and scrapes on the jersey wall.

The movement eventually pushed the rear end of the tanker up and over the jersey wall on the overpass. The fuel then shifted to the back of the tanker and pulled it over onto I-95, where it exploded and engulfed four other vehicles in flames. "The question is what caused the erratic driving," McLhinney said.

Frost was headed to the Citgo station at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, one of the driver's regular stops, McLhinney said. Workers at the Citgo said yesterday that they worried when Frost didn't arrive and they heard of the explosion.

"I left here at 6:30 that night and he never showed up," said Barbara Hundley, 61. "I couldn't believe it."

Court records show that Frost was in Maryland traffic court three times from 1989 to 1991 for violations including failure to obey a traffic device, operating a vehicle with brakes out of adjustment and failure to sufficiently reinforce his trailer hitch. Authorities said they are not aware of any citations since 1991.

Maryland requires three licenses for drivers of gasoline tanker trucks, and Frost had all of them, according to the state Motor Vehicle Administration. Frost has had a Maryland commercial driver's license since 1992, and he also has the required tanker and hazardous materials endorsements.

Petro-Chemical tanker trucks have been involved in several serious accidents over the past decade, notably a 1995 crash in Detroit where the tanker burst into flames, killing the driver, and a 5,000-gallon fuel spill in St. Louis two years ago.

Despite those accidents, Reid, the company president, said Petro-Chemical has earned a satisfactory rating from the Department of Transportation for every year of his 16-year tenure.

Staff from Petro-Chemical will remain in Baltimore throughout the NTSB investigation, Reid said.

Sun staff writers Heather Dewar and Walter F. Roche Jr. and researchers Paul McCardell and Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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