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Gas Truck Driver Dies in Fiery Va. Wreck

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page B03

A tank truck overturned and exploded on an Interstate 395 exit ramp near the Pentagon early yesterday, killing the driver and sending a river of flames cascading down Washington Boulevard as 8,500 gallons of gasoline poured from the truck.

The initial explosion sparked fear in Arlington residents of another terrorist attack on the Pentagon. But traffic cameras captured much of the incident, and authorities quickly concluded that the crash resulted from a truck traveling too fast on a sharp curve.

Firefighters inspect the smoldering wreckage of a gasoline tank truck that overturned about 3:40 a.m. on an Interstate 395 exit ramp near the Pentagon. The fire melted a streetlight 14 feet above the ground. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

Current Conditions: Get live traffic reports, plan your best route home or set up personal traffic alerts.
Tanker Explosion Snarls Traffic: A tanker truck exploded after crashing on Washington Boulevard near Interstate 395, killing one person and shooting flames and smoke skyward while disrupting local traffic.

The driver was identified as Michael J. Guess, 31, of Forestville, who worked for Quarles Energy Services of Fredericksburg. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family," said Ben Wafle, the company president.

Police said Guess was on his way to a Citgo station near the Pentagon when the accident occurred about 3:40 a.m.

Although I-395 was immediately closed in both directions, the fire had mostly burned itself out by the start of the morning rush, and northbound I-395 toward the District was reopened at 5:45 a.m. Southbound I-395 near the Pentagon was reopened about two hours later, but Washington Boulevard near the Pentagon remained closed yesterday for investigation and road repairs.

The fire burned so intensely that the truck's trailer was incinerated and much of the cab also was destroyed. Flaming fuel streamed down Washington Boulevard, scorching the underside of another off-ramp and melting a streetlight 14 feet above the ground.

The fuel then drained into a sewer system, and the resulting pressure of the heat popped several manhole covers. Arlington County's hazardous materials crews moved quickly to stem the flow of the fuel into waterways, especially Four Mile Run. State environmental officials said they succeeded.

On the grassy embankment where the truck overturned, flames rose 50 to 100 feet into the air, and a black column of smoke rose into the sky, fire officials said.

For some, the booms, flames and odors evoked memories of Sept. 11, 2001.

Frederika O'Brien, who lives in a high-rise apartment complex on Army Navy Drive near the Pentagon, said she was soundly sleeping when the explosion occurred.

"It woke me up, and the odor was enormous," O'Brien said. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, they hit the Pentagon again.' " O'Brien was on her balcony during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and she said the truck explosion sounded identical to the jet hitting the Pentagon.

When she looked out the window, she saw black smoke coming from the accident. "It was not in the direction of the Pentagon," she said, "but it was the same black smoke like when the Pentagon was hit."

Karen Nelson, who lives in the same apartment complex, said the explosion did not wake her up; the overpowering smell of gas did.

"It permeated everything," she said. "There was no way to get around it. The air was completely covered in smoke. It burned my eyes, my throat. It was impossible to breathe."

Sgt. Wallace Bouldin of the Virginia State Police said, "It appears the truck took the ramp too fast." He said a witness estimated that the truck was moving at highway speed when it entered the ramp from northbound I-395 to Washington Boulevard, which nearly makes a 90-degree angle before heading uphill toward the boulevard.

Jeffery A. Steers, regional director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said none of the spilled gas reached Arlington's wastewater treatment plant. He said that Quarles had hired contractors to clean up a stretch of Long Branch, a creek that feeds into Four Mile Run, and that any traces of gas had been contained and were being removed.

Nearby sewers also were flushed, and Quarles would excavate the burned hillside to remove any other gas traces, Steers said.

Engineers inspected the charred overpass above the exit ramp and found it structurally sound, Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Ryan Hall said. He said he hoped the ramp would open by this morning's rush.

Staff writer Elaine Rivera contributed to this report.

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