Tanker fire shuts down I-75 in Manatee

ELLENTON — A fuel tanker plunged off an Interstate 75 overpass and exploded on the highway below Wednesday evening, closing both roads indefinitely.

Flames and black smoke shot into the air, burning the interstate overpass and dropping chunks of the bridge onto U.S. 301 in Manatee County, paralyzing traffic for hours.

The tanker driver, Raymond Neumman, 54, of Brooksville, was flown to Tampa General Hospital in critical condition with severe burns. Two drivers of other vehicles involved in the crash refused medical treatment, authorities said.

According to initial reports, the tanker was traveling south on I-75 about 4 p.m. when it swerved to avoid a vehicle that had lost control on the rain-slick road. The tanker veered left, smashed through the guardrail and plummeted onto U.S. 301, near the Ellenton Prime Outlets mall.

The Florida Highway Patrol couldn't say when the bridge and U.S. 301 would reopen to traffic. A damaged overpass could endanger drivers on the interstate and on the road below.

"It cooked it," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Doug Dodson, who said a solution may take some time. "This is just not a simple place where we can get people off and back on."

After talking with state Department of Transportation officials, state Rep. Ron Reagan of Bradenton said the northbound span might not be as badly damaged as the southbound. Officials could explore turning the northbound bridge into a two-way road while they repair the southbound bridge, he said.

I-75 and U.S. 301 are major arteries in Manatee County, Reagan said. He worried about what the closings would mean if a hurricane triggers an evacuation.

"We are ready to do what is needed to get this bridge rebuilt as quickly as possible," Reagan said, adding the damage could total $5-million.

Capt. Larry Leinhauser, spokesman for Manatee County Public Safety, said the truck was carrying either diesel fuel or gasoline.

"This went up pretty quick," Leinhauser said. "Whatever it is, it's burned beyond recognition at this point."

The driver of the vehicle that precipitated the accident told the Bradenton Herald that his truck started spinning as he merged into interstate traffic from U.S. 301. Fernando Aguilera Chavez, 29, of Bradenton said the tanker driver tried to avoid him but they collided, then the tanker hit another vehicle, a white van driven by Herbert DeGroat, 61, a St. Petersburg resident.

Debris from the overpass struck another vehicle on U.S. 301, causing minor damage.

Other witnesses heard the explosion and felt the heat. Apollo Beach resident Mark Privette was driving north on I-75 when he saw the tanker veer off the overpass. He stopped and looked down on U.S. 301 and heard the driver calling for help.

"He was burned all over his body. It was terrible," Privette told the Herald. "It is so surreal."

Scott Lowrimore was stopped at a red light on U.S. 301.

"The next thing I know is I hear a big BOOM!," the 29-year-old told the Bradenton Herald. "There was a ball of fire about 400 feet in the air. Like an atomic bomb. People took off running that way and then I got out of my car when it blew up again. The heat was enormous."

Ellenton Prime Outlets mall turned into a ghost town at what would have been peak hours.

"We haven't had a customer in a hour and a half," Joe Gibson of the Reebok Outlet Store said Wednesday evening.

DOT data shows about 83,000 vehicles a day cross over the I-75 bridge, and another 34,000 go underneath it at U.S. 301, according to the Herald.

The wreck is likely to affect traffic patterns for some time, though it was unclear Wednesday how long, as Highway Patrol investigators tried to piece together what happened and transportation officials assessed the damage. Engineers expected to determine whether the northbound span is safe today.

Other tanker crashes have slowed traffic for weeks and even months. Last March, a tanker carrying diesel fuel slammed into a wall on Interstate 375 in downtown St. Petersburg, killing the driver. It took more than a month and around-the-clock repairs to reopen the road.

In December 2001, a gasoline tanker overturned and caught fire on the northbound lanes of Independence Parkway, right under an overpass carrying the southbound lanes of the Veterans Expressway. It snarled traffic at one of Tampa's busiest intersections and shut down traffic on both roads. It took nearly two months for both damaged spans to reopen.

Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Tanker fire shuts down I-75 in Manatee 06/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 11, 2008 4:22pm]

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