Rig drifts out of its lane and heads toward a concrete barrier. Driver might have passed out from a "medical emergency." Images: Tom Berg, from TV newscasts

Rig drifts out of its lane and heads toward a concrete barrier. Driver might have passed out from a "medical emergency." Images: Tom Berg, from TV newscasts

It was such a spectacular wreck it made all three of the major networks’ evening newscasts: That semi plowing into a concrete barrier in Kansas City, Kansas, on Wednesday, tearing apart the tractor whose fuel ignited shortly after impact.

Incredibly, the driver suffered only minor injuries. He and his dog were pulled from the wreckage by motorists. Authorities think he may have suffered a “medical emergency” and perhaps passed out, which is why he veered out of the travel lane.

CBS and NBC carried video from a surveillance camera that shows the rig drifting off the outside lane and hitting the massive concrete structure. Footage shot from the ground  shows the tractor, twisted nearly 90 degrees and its hood missing, with a stream of fire engulfing much of the tractor’s rear.  

Tractor hits the barrier and begins a violent dismantling. Driver of the small white van really got an eyeful.

Tractor hits the barrier and begins a violent dismantling. Driver of the small white van really got an eyeful. 

ABC News’ anchor, David Muir, called it a “tanker explosion” as he read the introduction to the video, but the trailer was an empty lowboy. Why did he, or whoever wrote the script, think it was a tanker? No doubt because of the fire, evidently fed by diesel fuel from one or more of the tractor’s saddle tanks. You can see fuel spewing upward in a yellow cloud as the tractor hits the concrete.

Yellow cloud erupts as fuel spews out of a saddle tank. It ignites an instant later.

Yellow cloud erupts as fuel spews out of a saddle tank. It ignites an instant later.  

Saddle tanks will burst in impacts, and are often torn open if a truck just runs off a road and into a ditch. The result of ditching is an expensive hazmat cleanup, if not a fire.

Why aren’t fuel tanks made to survive at least the ditch accidents? Because they'd be more expensive and weigh more, and this is something rarely discussed at industry meetings. When I ask fleet managers if more poundage and money wouldn’t be worth it, they kind of shrug and shuffle their feet.

Tractor's frame is twisted and its hood ripped away as flames engulf its rear. But the cab appears intact and motorists were able to pull out the driver and his dog.

Tractor's frame is twisted and its hood ripped away as flames engulf its rear. But the cab appears intact and motorists were able to pull out the driver and his dog.  

Truth is, no one truck line could afford to armor its tanks because it’d be at a competitive disadvantage. Only a federal safety rule requiring everyone to comply would be fair. But even before the anti-regulation Trump administration, the feds didn’t seem inclined to consider one.

Anyway, after this wreck, the westbound lanes of Interstate 435 were shut down for many hours as crews repaired a barrier. So the public was inconvenienced, but that, and the totaled rig, were the worst that came out of this wreck. It could’ve been much worse.

Except this was the latest in a series of accidents involving big rigs in the KC area, and the third one on this stretch of road in a few weeks. And authorities, truckers, safety advocates, and the media are wondering how they can be prevented. 

Much worse than a diesel fuel fire is gasoline or ethanol exploding and burning fiercely after a tanker truck crashes. Their thin-walled aluminum bodies don’t hold up to much and, for some reason, authorities and the public seem to accept that it’s just part of life on the road. Should they?  

Author

Tom Berg
Tom Berg

Tom Berg

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational trucks and trailers of all types.

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Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational trucks and trailers of all types.

View Bio
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