HAMILTON TOWNSHIP (Mercer County, New Jersey) --- At about 1:50 p.m. on Wednesday, June 16, 1999, firefighters in several township firehouses were brought to their feet by the sound of an explosion. The blast was so powerful it shook some of the stations.
Knowing that their services were needed somewhere, firefighters from the Rusling Hose (Station 13), DeCou Hose (Station 15) and White Horse (Station 16) fire companies were already donning their turnout gear and boarding their apparatus when they were informed the explosion had occurred on Interstate 195 in the area of South Broad Street (Interchange 2).
Responding firefighters encountered heavy traffic at a standstill on westbound side of the highway. When they finally arrived on the scene, firefighters discovered that a tractor-trailer was heavily-involved, with flames also involving a 30-foot section of wooden sound barrier erected along the side of the highway. A debris field consisting of clothing, appliances, chairs and other household items littered the entire westbound side of the highway for more than 500 feet.
According to Sgt. Wendy Galloway, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey State Police, the explosion occurred inside a large overseas cargo container carried on a flatbed tractor-trailer. The tractor-trailer, being driven by a 41-year-old New York man, was proceeding west and had just past the ramp leading onto Interstate 195 from South Broad Street when the blast tore the metal cargo container apart.
The rear doors of the cargo container were sent airborne and dozens of items fell out, but fortunately none of the flying debris struck any other vehicles on the highway, Galloway said. The driver managed to stop the rig and jump to safety as flames engulfed the remaining contents of the cargo container – which included a van, a car and countless personal possessions.
Telesquirt 16’s master stream and several handlines were utilized to attack the fire. To supply water, tankers were called to the scene from the Groveville Fire Co. (Station 19), Hope Fire Co. (Monmouth County Station 82-1), Chesterfield Hose Co. (Burlington County Station 262) and Florence Fire Co. No. 2 (Burlington County Station 402).
Because it was initially unknown if there were any hazardous materials inside the cargo container (several cans of paint were at least visible) HazMat technicians from the Hamilton Emergency Response Team (Station 10) were called out and additional resources were called in from the Mercerville (Station 12) and Nottingham (Station 17) fire companies.
Representatives of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection responded to monitor air quality, while about two dozen officers from the township force and the state police shut down the interstate. Westbound traffic was diverted onto Arena Drive and eastbound traffic was moved onto Route 206.
To extinguish fire burning on the back side of the wooden sound barrier, firefighters cut an opening through the base of the barrier. White Horse Deputy Chief Jeff Nemes was the initial incident commander. He was relieved later in the day by White Horse Chief Mike Burns.
Signal 2-2, the volunteer canteen unit from Trenton, responded to the scene and provided weary emergency workers with three dozen hot dogs, three dozen hoagie pieces and eight cases of soda, according to the organization’s president, Ruth Arnwine.
Once the fire was under control and it was determined that no hazardous materials were involved, specialists from the state police’s arson/bomb squad began their investigation.
John Hagerty, another state police spokesman, said the preliminary investigation suggests a propane cylinder stored illegally in the cargo container might have leaked and caused the blast.
Crews from the Hamilton Department of Public Works and the New Jersey Department of Transportation used a crane to remove the twisted metal roof of the cargo container, which sat on top of the charred hulks of the car and van. Other equipment was used to remove the debris from the roadway.
The eastbound side of Interstate 195 was reopened to traffic by 6:30 p.m. but westbound lanes remained closed until midnight until after the investigation and cleanup was completed.

NOTE: This account was written by Michael Ratcliffe. Photographs of this incident and others from throughout New Jersey can be found at New Jersey Firefighters Online at http://www.njfirefighters.com