February 14, 2007 Edition

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An 18-wheeler tanker truck carrying 10,000 gallons of propane overturned Friday morning at the intersection of Highways 412 and 91 in Walnut Ridge causing a full-scale emergency response and the evacuation of a half-mile radius of the accident scene.
TD Photo ~ Gretchen Hunt

Overturned tanker truck causes
emergency response, evacuation

Nova Hancock (third, from right), manager of Walnut Ridge Manor, visits with Rev. Steve Trail of First Free Will Baptist and church members (from left), Glenda Spradlin, Judy Trail and Lou Scudder. Residents of Walnut Ridge Manor had to be evacuated because of their proximity to the accident. Several were taken to First Free Will Baptist, where they waited to be able to return home.
TD Photo ~ Amber Adams

Gretchen Hunt

What originally went out as a call for response to a motor vehicle accident at 10:25 a.m. on Friday became much more when it was discovered that the accident involved an 18-wheeler tanker truck carrying 10,000 gallons of propane fuel.

According to the accident report, the 2003 Peterbilt truck pulling a tanker trailer overturned at the entrance to a gravel lot near the intersection of Highways 412 and 91 on East Main Street in Walnut Ridge.

The driver, Larry J. Looney, 58, of West Memphis, told officers that he realized he had made a wrong turn and needed to get back to the bypass. When he attempted to pull into the lot to turn around, his back wheels went into the ditch causing the truck and trailer to turn over.

The Walnut Ridge fire and police departments responded and quickly secured the scene because of the possible dangers involved.

Steve Jones, county coordinator for the Department of Emergency Management, said propane is very volatile, and had the truck actually been leaking as originally feared, the danger would have been magnified.

"It would have formed a vapor cloud that would have traveled out from the scene based on the pressure of the leak," he said. "If it had then found an ignition source, the whole vapor cloud would have become a fire cloud."

He said he has a video of a similar rollover that happened in Memphis that actually resulted in a leak, causing fires as much as a mile away from the scene.

Because of those dangers, Highways 91 and 412 leading to the accident were closed, as were several side streets.

Alan Haskins, chief of the Walnut Ridge Fire Department, said when the accident occurred they could hear a hissing sound, which they believed to be gas leaking from the tank.

"It turned out to be air hissing from the transfer valves on the truck, but until we got our HazMat guys equipped and in there to investigate, we couldn't know for sure," he said.

Even when it was discovered that the hissing was not gas leaking, there was still cause for concern.

"We still didn't know if the integrity of the tank had been compromised," he said. "It was bowing and we felt like the best thing for the safety of the city was to initiate the evacuation of the area."

One of the first decision made was that the Walnut Ridge School campus, located near the accident, needed to be evacuated.

"Alan called me and made me aware of the situation," Mayor Michelle Rogers said. "He recommended the school be evacuated, so I made the call."

Supt. Terry Belcher said the school has a plan in place for such an evacuation, though they always thought the threat would be from the railroads.

"Within a little over 30 minutes, we had all the kids loaded and out of here," Belcher said.

He said the evacuation went well despite having to make a change in midstream. Initially, they were told to take all students, who do not ride a bus and had not been picked up by their parents, to the Community Center, but emergency officials then decided that was not far enough away from the scene.

"Many of the parents had already come and picked up their kids," Belcher said. "So we loaded the remaining kids on a bus and took them to First Baptist Church."

He said any children who would have been dropped off on a bus route in the area of the accident were also taken to the church.

"As a whole, the evacuation went pretty smooth," Belcher said. "There's always chaos at first, but our priority was to get the buses in and the students on them and out of the area."

"I want to thank the school and praise them for their evacuation process," Haskins said. "We appreciate their cooperation and the cooperation of the people who had to be evacuated from their homes. We want to apologize for having to do it, but it was our only option."

Among those who had to be evacuated were the residents of nearby Walnut Ridge Manor. Nova Hancock, manager of the complex, said many of the residents left on their own; however, seven were taken by a Hoxie School bus to First Free Will Baptist Church.

"We want to thank them for their hospitality," Hancock said of the church. "They provided drinks and things. They went the extra mile for us and tried to do anything they could to make them more comfortable."

The workers at the scene received hospitality, as well, according to Haskins, who expressed his appreciation to those who donated food for those working the accident.

In addition to the WRFD and WRPD, those responding included the Walnut Ridge and Pocahontas HazMat teams, the Imboden Fire Department's support trailer, the Walnut Ridge Street Department, the Pocahontas Police Department, the Lawrence County Sheriff's Department, the Arkansas State Police and Highway Patrol, Arkansas Excellent Transport, Medic One and the regional, Lawrence County and Craighead County Department of Emergency Management coordinators.

Haskins said cooperation from the hospital and Walnut Ridge and Hoxie schools were also very important factors.

Junior Briner, vice president of support services at Lawrence Health Services, said the hospital activated its emergency medical plan on standby status.

"We didn't know if we would have any injuries from the incident or not," he said. "Fortunately, it all worked out."

LHS also provided cots for those who were evacuated from their homes and set up a temporary daycare for LHS employees' children who were evacuated from the school.

The owner of the truck, Silica Transport, Inc. of Guion, sent another tanker to off-load the fuel from the overturned truck.

Haskins said they could only off-load around 50 percent of the fuel while the tank was on its side. At around 6:30 p.m., they were able to turn the truck back upright to transfer the remainder of the fuel.

"Once the trailer was stood up without incident, we felt safe issuing the all-clear," he said. At that time, residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Jones said the fact that those responding to the incident have worked together before on emergency calls and have trained together and implemented drills together was instrumental in the successful handling of the situation.

"There was excellent cooperation between everyone," Jones said. "Everything worked like the textbook says it's supposed to."

Haskins agreed saying the impact of training and drills is astronomical when it comes to a real incident.

"It really came together like it's supposed to," he said. "So much of it was from our training."

Mayor Rogers had praise for all involved in the response.

"Everyone who helped did an excellent job," she said. "It could have been a lot worse. We were real lucky it turned out like it did."

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