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18-wheeler crash touches off firestorm

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Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 12:15 pm

An eastbound 18-wheeler tanker filled with crude oil lost control on rain-slick U.S. Highway 90A at FM 2091 (Greenwood Hills) about three miles west of Gonzales, flipped over and burst into flames just after 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, killing the driver.

Dense, black smoke roiling from the accident site choked the sky, and could be seen as far away as Belmont and Luling.

Texas Department of Public Safety, Gonzales County Sheriff's Office, Gonzales County Rescue/EMS, Gonzales Fire Department, Belmont Volunteer Fire Department and Ottine Volunteer Fire Department were among those called to battle the inferno, while Gonzales police closed 90A at U.S. Highway 183 to westbound traffic and Belmont authorities turned back 90A eastbound traffic.

Preliminary information from DPS confirmed details of the accident that occurred at 10:37 a.m. at the northeast corner of the 90A and FM 2091 intersection. DPS officials said both the Freightliner tractor and trailer were fully engulfed in flames upon impact.

The driver was burned beyond recognition, but authorities were able to identification the driver late Wednesday as Rafael Ortiz, 63, of Pearsall.

Police scanner communications transmitted reports from the scene of additional explosions as first responders raced to the site.

At 10:45 a.m., authorities called for westbound traffic to be stopped at Highway 183, and by 10:55 a.m., eastbound traffic was being turned back at state Highway 80 in Belmont, shutting down more than 15 miles of U.S. 90A.

As a precaution, residents north of the accident scene for up to two miles were asked to evacuate because officials were unsure of the trailer's contents. Gonzales County Judge David Bird issued the evacuation order at 11:34 a.m. using the reverse 9-1-1 emergency notification system, then lifted the order at 1:48 p.m. Bird said all phones in the area were called to advise residents that the 90A intersection was closed and to advise them to avoid the area.

Officials were often held at bay by angry flames, with fireballs intermittently shooting as high as 30 feet into the air and creating blackened mushroom clouds that drifted north.

By 11:07 a.m., Gonzales fire officials were calling for additional manpower, as well as an engine with air packs. Foam was also requested for use at the site.

At 11:56 a.m., Gonzales Fire Chief Keith Schmidt advised that firefighters were "beginning extinguishment of the fire."

Schmidt reported the fire to be under control at 12:29 p.m., and assisting units began to return to Belmont shortly thereafter, according to police scanner communications. Gonzales fire personnel cleared the site and returned to service at 3:30 p.m.

Highway 90A west of 183 was reopened at 3:35 p.m., five hours after the accident. The accident delayed scheduled school bus service to the area for two Gonzales ISD bus routes Wednesday afternoon.

DPS officials would not say if wet roads were the sole cause of the accident or how fast the truck was traveling at the time of the accident, specifying that the crash is still under investigation.

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