Tanker Explosion Shuts Down Massachusetts Highway

Officials said the driver of the tanker truck driver suffered from burns to more than 60 percent of his body.


CHICOPEE --

A tanker truck carrying thousands of gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel crashed onto at least three other vehicles on Interstate 91 near Chicopee early Friday, causing an explosion and hospitalizing the driver with serious burns.

Bay State Medical Center confirmed that the driver was brought to the Springfield hospital, where officials said he was suffering from burns to more than 60 percent of his body. His name was not released.

Early reports that the truck was carrying jet fuel were erroneous, Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonette said. He said the truck was carrying 9,000 gallons of gasoline and 3,000 gallons of diesel.

A plume of thick, black smoke from the wreckage could be seen miles away from the accident as fire crews tried to get the blaze under control. Personnel from nearby Westover Air Force base were called on to help quell the flames.

The collision occurred on the northbound side of the highway, near Exit 13A, just after 9:30 a.m. and state emergency officials said three cars were engulfed in flames. The blaze was not brought under control until close to 11 a.m.

Witnesses said the tanker truck rolled off the highway onto several cars below. Bisonette said the truck driver was apparently cut off by a passing car. When he tried to avoid a collision he hit another vehicle and rolled over. The woman in that car was hurt, but the extent of her injuries was unknown and her name was not released.

Passing motorists tried to rescue people in the damaged vehicles, witnesses said.

"The cab stayed up on the highway, but it was engulfed in flames and it was incredible that several bystanders got out of their cars, as well as two nearby workers, and pulled the driver out of a burning cab. Got him stabilized on the ground until the paramedics could come," Bissonette said.

The crash happened on Center Street at the underpass where Interstate 91 and Interstate 391 intersect. It's called the "Chicopee Curve."

The roadway was shut down in both directions, but by noon the southbound side was reopened. Two northbound lanes were opened by 2 p.m.

Bisonette said there were remaining questions about the structural safety of the bridge where the accident occurred that were keeping the northbound side closed.

He added that the crash and fuel spill may have caused environmental issues for the nearby Connecticut River.

There was no word on what caused the crash, but weather advisories were issued in the area early Friday because of late-season snow, sleet and rain.

The driver worked for Abenaqui Carriers of North Hampton, N.H., according to the Associated Press.

The company issued a statement Friday afternoon saying it appeared the driver was trying to avoid a collision when the crash occurred.

"It appears the tanker driver was taking evasive action to avoid what may have been a disabled vehicle and that action caused the tanker to rollover. The tanker was in the right travel lane. It appears that speed was not a factor," the company said in a prepared statement.

A driver for the same company rolled over a fuel tanker in Everett, Mass., in December, sparking a fire that severely damaged several homes and destroyed dozens of cars.

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