Ramp called safe to open

Crash, fire caused no structural damage, authorities say

May 15, 2007|By Gadi Dechter and Annie Linskey | Gadi Dechter and Annie Linskey,Sun reporters

The fatal tanker-truck accident Sunday evening that turned a South Baltimore interstate ramp into a waterfall of blazing ethanol caused no structural damage, authorities said yesterday.

The sharply curving, elevated entrance ramp to southbound Interstate 95 is expected to reopen by Wednesday morning, after crews mill and replace the road surface and replace a portion of the safety wall, said Cpl. Jonathan Green, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

Under the ramp, South Hanover Street - where six parked cars and a truck were ignited by the stream of burning fuel spilled from the tanker - was opened to traffic late yesterday afternoon.

Authorities did not release the name of the Dana Transport System driver who died in the crash, pending DNA tests. "The victim was severely burned," Green said. "It's going to be necessary to conduct DNA tests to confirm his identity with certainty."

The cause of the single-vehicle accident remained under investigation, authorities said. The tanker rig, carrying 8,000 gallons of ethanol, crashed into the ramp's guardrail about 6 p.m. Sunday, sending a flaming cascade of ethanol into the street below. Fire crews worked for more than three hours to put out the tanker blaze with water and foam.

About 6,800 gallons of the load spilled or burned, Green said.

Authorities said it was a miracle no one other than the truck driver was hurt.

"It's phenomenal there weren't other deaths," said Baltimore police Officer Joe Goldberg, who was on the scene minutes after the accident. "This had the potential to be bigger than it was. The good Lord was with us."

Goldberg said the westerly grade of that section of Hanover Street funneled the burning ethanol away from rowhouses lining the east side of the street. But the fuel streamed underneath the parked cars - igniting each one with a pop - before settling into a sewer drain at West Barney Street, Goldberg said.

Officials with the Avenel, N.J.-based Dana Transport System did not return calls yesterday.

Sunday's accident was the second fatality in less than a week for the trucking company, which has a local base of operations in Curtis Bay and specializes in hauling hazardous materials.

On Thursday, a Dana Transport tanker carrying 9,000 gallons of gasoline overturned and exploded into flames on I-95 in central New Jersey after colliding with a sedan that crossed the median, the Newark Star-Ledger reported. The tanker driver was killed.

Dana Transport has had several other serious accidents in recent years. Last year, one of its tankers overturned in New Jersey after hitting another car, spilling thousands of gallons of gasoline onto a street and severely injuring the truck driver, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. In 2004, a Dana tanker spilled about 4,000 gallons of jet fuel near an aquifer that feeds wells in several townships in New Jersey, according to the Allentown Morning Call.

But the company has a good track record and is rated a low safety risk with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said Melissa DeLaney, a spokeswoman for the federal agency that monitors interstate hauling.

The trucking industry has recently come under increasing fire from politicians and regulators in the aftermath of a bridge collapse in Oakland, Calif., last month, caused by the heat of a burning gas tanker.

"We do feel the pressure," said John Conley, president of the National Tank Truck Carriers trade association in Alexandria, Va. "The tank truck industry overall has probably the best safety record when it comes to some of these loads," Conley said. "But when one of these turns over and you're talking gasoline, you're going to have bad results."

Dana Transport has "a very solid reputation," Conley said.

Authorities in Baltimore said it could be weeks before the cause of Sunday's accident is determined. Meanwhile, people in South Baltimore were still talking about it.

Jon Yuspa, who lives a block and a half from the accident scene, picked up a melted license plate on Hanover Street yesterday. "I have the only souvenir," he said, adding, "I guess souvenir is not a good word."

Yuspa said he was one of the first people to witness the scene.

"I saw the fire going upward and dripping over the edge of the bridge," he said. "It was raining ethanol fuel."

He recalled watching as city firefighters contended with three separate blazes: the tanker fire; a small brushfire that ignited nearby, and the row of cars that became engulfed in flames.

Brandon Couser, operations manager of Couser Supply Inc. in the 1800 block of S. Hanover St., watched one of his company's dump trucks go up in flames.

"Our truck was completely torched," he said.

Couser said the interstate ramp bridging Hanover Street is notoriously dangerous. He recalled two accidents there in recent years that damaged the barrier walls lining the ramp.gadi.dechter@baltsun.com annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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