`Unbelievable' driving

Trucker gets burning vehicle to I-95 shoulder before it explodes

November 24, 2005|By LEM SATTERFIELD, TOM PELTON AND GUS G. SENTEMENTES | LEM SATTERFIELD, TOM PELTON AND GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTERS

Boyor D. Chew was cruising down Interstate 95 in a tanker truck filled with thousands of gallons of gasoline early yesterday when he noticed fire leaping out the back of the vehicle. He slowed, and the flames grew higher. He sped up and wind knocked them down.

What he couldn't do was pull to the side. Other drivers, he said, "must have seen the fire on the wheel, but they still wouldn't let me over."

Finally, in a move that state transportation officials credit with saving lives on one of the busiest travel days of the year, Chew eased the truck to the side of the highway, just before the southbound lanes split at the Capital Beltway.

FOR THE RECORD - The man in a photo that accompanied an article yesterday about a fire and explosion on a gasoline tanker truck was not the driver of the truck, Boyor Chew. A photo of Chew appears above. The Sun regrets the error.

Only to discover that a Jersey wall blocked the shoulder.

"I'm a Christian man," Chew, a former professional boxer, said in an interview last night. "So I prayed and kept driving. I said, `Lord, just give me 25 seconds, I'll do this thing in 20 seconds.'

"The Jersey wall came to an end. I didn't know if I was going to jump out of the truck and let the truck keep going, or just ride it out and come to a complete stop, get out and just run for dear life. I chose that last route.'"

The truck slowed to about 5 mph, and Chew yanked the emergency brake, jumped out and ran.

"When I got about 50 feet away, my first compartment blew up, like BOOM," Chew said. "As I was running, I ran about 100 yards on the shoulder. Wouldn't nobody stop for me."

The predawn explosion - which might have been triggered by a malfunction that sent sparks flying into the gas tank - spilled flaming gasoline across one of the nation's busiest highways, shutting it at the beginning of the morning rush hour and delaying thousands of commuters and holiday travelers.

All lanes were reopened to traffic yesterday afternoon. No one was injured.

"There were several other drivers in the immediate vicinity of the tanker, and the driver did an unbelievable job of preventing injury to himself or to others," said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration. "It's very rare to have an 8,700-gallon tanker truck fully engulfed in flame and not have somebody get killed."

Construction crews had to strip off 2 inches of asphalt and resurface a section of the road that was deemed too weak to support vehicles. That process kept two of four lanes of the East Coast's primary thoroughfare closed into the afternoon and backed up long after the burned wreckage of the tanker had been cleared.

North- and southbound lanes of the highway, which carries about 190,000 vehicles a day, were shut down for about 45 minutes, starting shortly after 4:30 a.m. Traffic backed up for miles, to the Howard County line, as all the southbound lanes remained closed for more than three hours and partially closed - with two lanes squeezing by - until 1:40 p.m.

The blaze left a charred shell of the tanker and burned trees and bushes on both sides of the highway's southbound lanes and damaged the asphalt. "It was a huge fireball," Buck said.

Emergency crews let the flames burn the gasoline off the roadway, and police diverted traffic onto clogged local roads.

More than 30 workers from the State Highway Administration and a contractor, F.O. Day Inc. of Rockville, hustled to repair the road with dozens of pieces of heavy equipment.

Huge machines with spinning grinders ripped off the damaged surface of the highway, stripping the top 2 inches along a 150-foot stretch. Bulldozers and dump trucks hauled away the debris. Other vehicles sprayed water on the stripped surface, brushed it and applied fresh asphalt.

Laborers in reflective vests cut up the remains of the burned-out tanker; the pieces were hauled away on five flatbed trucks.

"We are working against the clock to let people get to their holiday destinations," Buck said, as traffic crept by yesterday morning.

The tanker truck, a 2003 Peterbilt, was owned by Ocean Petroleum Co. Inc., a gasoline distribution company with headquarters in Newark, Worcester County.

Federal safety records show that the company has a satisfactory rating, the highest category, as of its last review in January 2003. The company's out-of-service ratio for vehicles is below the national average, the records show.

"We've had minor accidents but nothing of this magnitude," said Steve Ladd, chief operating officer of the firm, which also runs convenience stores and gas stations.

The accident occurred shortly after Chew had filled the tanker in Baltimore. He was driving south on I-95 to a Silver Spring gas station. Just past the Route 212 overpass in Beltsville, he saw a light in his right side mirror. He thought he was being tailgated.

"I looked again, and I said, `Man, that light's getting brighter,'" Chew said. "I looked out my back window and my wheel was on fire. I think my brake must have been locked on that particular axel. Being that it was that one wheel, it wouldn't stop the truck from moving. You'd have never known it. I slowed down, and the flame got higher. So I sped up, and that knocked the flame down because of the wind."

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