Police: Trucker outside cab when he died
AVON, Colorado – The truck driver in Sunday’s fiery crash was found outside his truck, his badly burned body curled into a ball, police investigators said Monday.
How he ended up outside the truck and what caused the wreck remains under investigation, but he was not far enough away from the inferno to survive, police said.
Dental records will be needed before he can be positively identified, officials said, although his next-of-kin has been notified.
Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said she is still is still trying to determine what caused the driver’s death.
The driver died at the scene, Bettis said. The female passenger in the truck and the two people in a Honda CR-V – Lara Wahl and Bradley Zellefrow, of Avon – were all treated at the Vail Valley Medical Center and released.
Lucky or unlucky?
Whether Wahl and Zellefrow are among the luckiest or unluckiest people on earth remains a question, and so far they’ve chosen not to enter the discussion. Phone calls Monday went unanswered and were not returned.
The two Avon residents were motoring along Avon Road when the rear of the two trailers on the westbound Yellow Freight tractor-trailer rig flipped over the guardrail and onto the street below – landing on their Honda CR-V.
That first trailer was quickly followed down by the other trailer and the tractor, as the whole thing burst into flames estimated to be 200 feet high.
Trapped in all that were Wahl and Zellefrow. Seconds later they were spotted walking out of the flames, escaping with minor injuries, police said.
“I don’t know how anyone could have survived,” said Steve Carver with Big Steve’s Towing.
It took Carver and a 13-man crew from Big Steve’s Towing until 2 a.m. Monday to clean it up.
The truck is burned beyond recognition, he said.
“I can’t even tell what kind of truck it was,” Carver said.
The Yellow Freight truck was carrying a mixture of household goods, and was not hazardous material, police said. Hazmat crews were called in as a precaution.
Fireball shoots up
Longtime local Will Miller was headed through Avon from Singletree when he drove under the I-70 bridge. Less than 18 seconds later he was climbing out of his Saab convertible at the Northside Cafe when he heard the heart-stopping sound of metal smashing against concrete.
He turned around to see the fireball shoot 200 feet into the air and a huge cloud of black smoke completely obliterate the bridge.
“It sounded like a train pileup,” Miller said. “The way the fireball went up it looked like something from the movies.”
Lightning response time
In the moments after the wreck, dispatchers were deluged with approximately 31 emergency calls into the Vail Public Safety Communications Center, said Randy Braucht, communications supervisor.
The first calls hit dispatchers at 9:55 and 28 seconds. The Eagle River Fire Protection District got the call at 9:57 and 45 seconds.
Firefighters took less than a minute to get geared up and out the door. The first truck was on the scene at 12 seconds after 10 a.m., said Batallion Chief Cipriano Tafoya.
“They’re a motivated bunch,” said chief Karl Bauer said. “They like to do their job.”
Firefighters immediately started using huge tank trucks to pour water on the flames, and tanker trucks from other fire departments arrived quickly, Tafoya said.
Eagle, Gypsum, and Vail all pitched in, Tafoya said.
“We had every on-duty engine company at that fire,” Bauer said.
That’s both good and bad, Bauer said.
With every available crew fighting the truck fire, if another fire had broken out somewhere they might not have been able to respond to it, Bauer said. Budget cuts forced the fire district to close its Minturn and Edwards stations. It was two hours before enough off-duty fire fighters were on hand to handle anything else that might have arisen.
“That’s what scares us most. If we’d had another incident at the same time we could not have responded,” Bauer said.
Eastbound I-70 traffic was closed from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Westbound traffic was closed hours longer and was rerouted.
One lane of westbound traffic over the bridge was opened Sunday evening, and it will remain a one-lane for at least a week, said the Colordo Department of Transportation.
Behrooz Far and Siri Roman, local CDOT structural engineers, examined the bridge Sunday afternoon and determined it was safe.
A CDOT crew was on the bridge Monday morning drilling concrete plugs out of the structure to send to a lab for further testing as part of an ongoing safety analysis, said Ashley Mohr, spokeswoman with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“We have bridges all over the state and we don’t let anyone drive over them if they’re not safe, or could become unsafe,” Mohr said.
Still, the left lane on that westbound bridge will remain closed for at least a week while crews replace the guardrail, which was mangled beyond repair, Mohr said.
The fire was likely sparked when one of the truck’s fuel tanks struck the bridge, firefighters said.
The accident is being investigated by the Avon Police, Colorado State Patrol, and Colorado Department of Transportation.
Agencies responding included Avon Police, Eagle River Fire Protection District, Greater Eagle Fire District, Gypsum Fire District, Vail Fire District and Vail Police, Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, Colorado State Patrol, Colorado Department of Transportation, Eagle County Ambulance District, Salvation Army and Avon Public Works.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.