Tanker accident reconstructed

Shifting of fuel ruled out

medical problem pursued as possible crash cause

January 18, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The lead federal investigator probing last week's explosion of a tanker truck on Interstate 95 discounted yesterday the theory that gasoline shifting within the tanker caused it to move erratically and fall from an overpass onto the highway.

While not ruling out such a possibility, National Transportation Safety Board investigator-in-charge Kenneth Suydam said that because the tanker was nearly full - carrying 8,900 gallons of gasoline in its 9,200-gallon tank - significant load shifting was unlikely.

"There's only 300 gallons of open space in that tanker," Suydam said, standing on a shut-down Interstate 895 yesterday as investigators reconstructed the crash with a tanker similar to the one that exploded. "Traditionally, they don't tend to shift much."

FOR THE RECORD - A headline in some editions of The Sun on Sunday inaccurately stated that crash investigators have ruled out load shifting as a possible cause of the Interstate 95 tanker explosion. The article said that the lead investigator, while not ruling out that possibility, discounted it as the likely cause.

Also yesterday, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police confirmed that, according to an eyewitness account, the driver of the tanker was slumped over the steering wheel shortly before the truck plunged from an I-895 bridge onto I-95 in Elkridge on Tuesday.

Cpl. Gregory Prioleau would not provide further information about the witness's account, though it helps explain why investigators are seeking the tanker driver's medical records and continue to pursue medical emergency as a possible cause. Toxicology tests on a blood sample taken from the driver's body have not come back.

"Right now we don't have any answers as to why the tanker went out of control," Prioleau said. "Certainly we'll look at witness accounts as well as physical evidence before the crash investigators can make an actual determination to the cause of the accident."

In addition to the witness who saw the tanker driver slumped over, others reported seeing the tanker moving erratically as it approached the bridge. State investigators have said that could indicate the load was shifting in the tanker, making it uncontrollable. But other theories are under consideration - including driver error, mechanical error and medical emergency.

"We would not be doing our jobs if we were not considering every reasonable explanation for the accident," said Chief Gary W. McLhinney of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, which is leading the investigation. "No plausible theories have been discounted."

Yesterday authorities shut down a 3 1/2 -mile stretch of I-895 for five hours to reconstruct the tanker's movements. Investigators drove a silver tanker onto the shoulder of the highway just before the bridge over I-95 and lined up its wheels with 165 feet of tire marks left by the tanker that exploded.

They also examined the guardrail hit by the tanker before the bridge and scrapes on the Jersey barrier that stretch 50 feet before the point where the tanker plunged, rear-end first, into traffic below. Investigators leaned over the barrier blackened by flames that shot 100 feet into the air and peered down at I-95.

"We're trying to make some sense of the marks and help our analysis of the preimpact movements of the vehicle," Suydam said. The information gathered about the position of the tanker will be entered into computers so models can be produced of likely scenarios.

Investigators are also trying to determine the speed at which the tanker was traveling before it left the roadway. They said the curvature of tire tracks that trace from the right lane of I-895 onto the shoulder, as well as the friction of the pavement, will help in that calculation.

"The tighter the radius of the curve in coordination with the abrasiveness of the road tells you at what speed the vehicle began to side-slide," Suydam said.

He said the charred wreckage left by the explosion has made it difficult to tell if mechanical error played any role in the crash. "The condition of the vehicles is not conducive to a good mechanical inspection," he said.

Five vehicles were consumed by the enormous fireball ignited by the 8,900 gallons of premium Citgo gasoline in the tanker. The driver of only one of the vehicles - a tractor-trailer - survived. The other four were killed, probably instantly.

The tanker driver was identified as Jackie M. Frost, 64, of Finksburg. The driver of a second tractor-trailer was identified as Rita A. Gall, 42, of Lansing, Mich. Her dog also perished in the flames. And the driver of a pickup truck on his way home from a job laying tile was identified as Maurice Durschlag, 62, of Glen Burnie.

Authorities are awaiting DNA test results to confirm the identity of the fourth victim, who was driving a taxicab. Some regular customers of cabdriver Marc Baladi, 63, told The Sun they believe he was the final victim. Baladi's neighbors in Hamilton said police interviewed them last week and visited Baladi's empty home.

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