Driver's health blamed for crash

State finds no evidence of mechanical failures in tanker in I-95 accident

4 people died in Jan. 13 fireball

April 27, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The driver of the gasoline tanker that plunged from an overpass onto Interstate 95 in January apparently had a heart attack or other sudden medical problem that caused him to lose control of his truck, according to the final state report on the fiery crash that claimed four lives.

Investigators for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police found no evidence of serious mechanical defects with the tanker, which had passed an inspection one week before the accident shut down I-95 near Elkridge for seven hours Jan. 13.

"The evidence indicates that the driver of [the tanker] experienced a sudden cardiac event or other type of medical emergency, thus explaining why he failed to maintain control over the vehicle," said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun. It is to be released today.

The report notes that the autopsy of tanker driver Jackie M. Frost, 64, found evidence of cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, tire marks left on the overpass showed that brakes had not been applied before the crash, and a witness reported seeing Frost slumped forward over the wheel.

A Maryland State Police summary of the autopsy stated that Frost had "a history of severe heart disease" and a blockage to his heart that could have led to a cardiac event or blood clot. The state police assisted the transportation authority in the crash probe.

Interstate truck drivers are required to pass physicals every two years. The company that employed Frost said yesterday that all of its drivers are in compliance with that regulation. The company, Petro-Chemical Transport of Addison, Texas, declined further comment.

Wife disputes findings

But Frost's wife continues to believe that a mechanical defect led to the crash. In an interview yesterday from her home in Finksburg, Geri Frost said she and her husband worked out regularly in their home gym and saw doctors frequently -- one for holistic therapy and another for physicals.

"My husband was in good health. He passed his physicals every year," she said. "He used to brag about how he had a runner's pulse. He was in good shape." But a source close to the investigation said the evidence, taken in its entirety, clearly points to a medical event.

The state's 67-page report details an accident sequence that begins with the tanker's rear end sliding over the Jersey wall on the I-895 bridge over I-95 and ends with an enormous fireball that melted tires and burned the lane markings off the highway.

Investigators constructed a narrative of both the crash and the events leading to it. Frost began work Jan. 13 at 7 a.m., the report said, delivering 7,600 gallons of diesel fuel to Landover. He ate lunch in Baltimore, at Paik's Chinese restaurant, where he locked his keys in his truck. A mechanic helped him unlock it.

After lunch, Frost went to the Citgo Fueling Terminal in south Baltimore. He loaded 8,803 gallons of premium gasoline into his 9,200-gallon tanker. He saw an old friend, another tanker driver, who told investigators that Frost appeared in good health.

"To all that saw him that day, it appeared that he was having a normal day and there was nothing that would make them draw any other conclusions," the report said.

Frost signed a receipt for the fuel he picked up at 2:07 p.m. He headed west on Interstate 895 from the terminal. His destination was a Citgo station at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

According to the report, witnesses said the tanker was moving erratically as it approached I-95. It quickly shifted from the left lane to the right lane and onto the shoulder. As it reached the overpass, the trailer began to jackknife. The rear of the tanker moved to the right, sliding up and onto the Jersey wall.

The tanker straddled the wall and then slid downward, rear-end first, toward I-95 below. Eventually, the trailer was hanging straight down perpendicular to the highway, pulling the cab up off the overpass. The force was so great that the cab separated from the trailer, and they both fell to the highway.

"As the tanker struck the ground, it immediately exploded into a large fireball," the report said. "The gasoline and flames spread across all lanes of the Interstate, up to the [Interstate] 895 bridge."

The tanker hit a tractor-trailer driven by Rita Ann Gall of Myrtle Beach, S.C., and a taxicab driven by Marc Baladi of Baltimore. The tanker crushed Gall's trailer, which contained Reebok medicine balls, and the cab compartment. Knocked unconscious, Gall lost control of her truck.

Both Gall, 42, and Baladi, 63, were killed.

One man escaped alive

Traveling about 300 feet behind Gall was Ronald Grow in a truck with an empty flatbed trailer. The report said Grow saw the collision with the tanker, couldn't stop to avoid the flames and drove through them. His truck was hit by Gall's, and he leapt from his still-moving vehicle.

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