Careless trucker narrowly escapes burning inferno in I-84; sends five to hospital

Not only did the truck driver melt down his own 18-wheeler, police say his carelessness also smashed four other vehicles. One would expect this kind of freeway carnage to leave dead bodies strewn across the concrete, but instead …

The stench of burning rubber, heated metal and roasted cargo hung in the afternoon air long after the 5:00 p.m. crash of the 18-wheeler.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Commuters using I-84 found their typically-slow, 5:00 p.m. drive home slam to a standstill on June 22. And, Parkrose neighbors and business people were surprised to look up and see a giant plume of thick, black smoke belching from the area where the Banfield Freeway crosses over NE 122nd Avenue.

Thought an airplane crashed
Marcy and John Bradford were walking their German Sheppard south, along NE 122nd Ave. “We were under the bridge (I-84 overpass) and heard an explosion,” Marcy told us. John added, “We thought a small plane trying to land at PDX airport had crashed-landed onto the freeway or hit a home and exploded. When we came up on the other side, though, we saw thick black smoke and flames from a big-rig truck.”

The explosions also caught the attention of people at Rossi Farm, two blocks away, at NE Shaver St.

Eyewitness to the inferno
An eyewitness to the narrow escape of the flaming truck’s driver was Jeff Schumacher, a driver with Jet Delivery Air Freight. His truck had broken down on the I-84 exit ramp at 122nd Ave.

While off to the side of the exit ramp, looking into the engine of his stalled truck, “I heard a big explosion, and looked up to see an 18-wheeler hit a light pole along [the west side] of the freeway. It slid along guardrail and caught fire. Just before the overpass, the driver got it stopped, jumped out, and ran about 30 feet before the cab exploded into flames.”

After burning for about ten minutes ‚Äì the rig’s cab engulfed in flame ‚Äì Schumacher said the second fuel tank must have been “boiling” under the tractor. “When it blew, I ducked and took cover. It shook the ground.”

Portland and Gresham fire crews respond
“When crews arrived on scene, they reported a tractor-trailer fully engulfed in flames,” reported Portland Fire & Rescue’s Lt. Allen Oswalt. “The first crew to arrive had to attack the fire from the eastbound lanes. To be safe, both sides of the freeway were completely shut down.”

Empting each fire engine’s 1,000 gallon tank in turn, firefighters doused the inferno. Just before the sixth fire engine’s tank ran dry, crews were able to connect a 2-inch hose to a hydrant more than two blocks away.

The fire was initially attacked with water carried on the fire engines, but that supply is limited, and a hose was stretched 700 ft. to the closest hydrant to provide water for a prolonged fire attack. “The fire in the truck was brought under control at 5:35 p.m.,” Oswalt told us. In all, 35 firefighters were called to battle the fire, in six engines from both Portland and Gresham.

Surprisingly, no life-threatening injuries
Four people were transported to local hospitals with non-life threatening injuries.

One firefighter was treated at the scene for heat exhaustion, and was transported to the hospital for further evaluation.

The fire burned so intensely that after the second fuel tank boiled and exploded, the only recognizable features of the tractor were its exhaust pipe and frame.

Cause of the carnage
Police say the driver of the now-charred big rig, 57-year-old Richard Shoemate, was to blame in the spectacular crash–for driving too fast, following too closely, and not being prepared for heavy, slow traffic as he headed westbound on I-84.

“Portland Police Traffic Investigators determined Shoemate was at fault,” Portland Police Bureau’s Det. Paul Dolbey confirmed for us, “when the semi-truck he was driving collided with a vehicle ahead of him. In total, five vehicles were damaged in the collision.”

Shoemate was cited both for “Following Too Closely” and “Careless Driving”, for his role in the collision.

© 2006 David F. Ashton ~ East PDX News

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