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Crashed tanker unleashes blaze

Published March 29, 2007

Flames from a tanker explosion pour over the highway in St. Petersburg to a city maintenance yard below. Fuel leaked into sewers, blowing off manhole covers.
[Times photo: Edmund Fountain]

ST. PETERSBURG - Flames poured over both sides of Interstate 375 Wednesday night after a tanker truck crashed and exploded, killing the truck driver.

Burning fuel rained down on a maintenance yard below the juncture of Interstate 275 and I-375. It flowed into the sewer system, where it caught fire and blew off manhole covers.

The smell of burning fuel hung in the air.

Hazardous materials teams, firefighters, paramedics and police officers rushed to the scene after the explosion, which occurred about 10:40 p.m.

"The sky turned purple and, boom, you see flames," said Melody Morrison, 26, who was standing at the corner of 4th Avenue and 16th Street N at the time of the crash.

The truck burned for more than an hour until firefighters got the blaze control. It was unclear late Wednesday what caused the crash, and the driver was not identified.

Residents of the area heard multiple explosions. Flames were seen in the maintenance yard, which houses city vehicles and construction materials.

Emergency workers shut down several streets and the I-375 off-ramp, which is about three stories high. Well after the other fires were under control, flames licked up from below manhole covers, sometimes shooting 15 feet.

"Get away from the covers!" police officers yelled at the gathering crowds.

One police officer was hit in the head by a manhole cover. The injury was not life threatening.

Some plastic sewer pipes also appeared to catch on fire, creating plumes of smoke. Emergency personnel pumped fire retardant foam into the system to help quell the fires.

The overpass where the crash took place was badly scorched, and cracks were showing in the concrete. Firefighters could be heard warning their colleagues not to linger below the interstate to avoid falling debris.

"I'm worried about all the people up there, wondering if they are okay or not," said Sarah Napier, 18, who heard a loud boom and then saw flames shoot into the sky.

Tom Swift, 39, who lives on Dartmouth Avenue N about two blocks west of the scene, said he felt his house shake.

"I'm concerned about the flames, especially in the dry conditions," he said.

Jay Shull, 27, who lives a few blocks away, was reading when he heard several small explosions.

"I heard this big bang and we thought that someone had knocked on the door ... and then it boomed again and I heard bang, bang, pop, pop, pop," he said. "I didn't even see the smoke yet, and I thought that's gunfire. Then I opened the door and I saw the smoke coming up and the flames."

Susan Cooper-Holl, 49, didn't hear the crash, but awoke when her dogs started barking.

"My heart goes out to the person driving that semi and his family."

Jessica Niehaus, 25, estimated that the flames from the burning tanker towered 50 feet. A fireball appeared to fall over the side of the interstate.

"It sounded like someone was right here shooting a gun," she said.

Ryan Bahn also felt his house shake.

"It felt like a mini earthquake."

Officials indicated that the I-375 off ramp would be closed today.

Two hours after the crash, soot stained the pillars that support the off-ramp. Heavy black smoke settled over nearby neighborhoods.

Sirens continued to wail.

[Last modified March 29, 2007, 02:12:57]

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