'It was very hectic’: Tanker truck bursts into flames hours after fatal crash

LINCOLN COUNTY, N.C. — Highway 16 was reopened Wednesday morning, hours after a tanker truck burst into flames after a deadly crash in Lincoln County.

Chopper 9 Skyzoom flew over the scene Tuesday afternoon along Highway 16 at St. James Church Road. Emergency crews responded to the crash just after 1:30 p.m.

Troopers said the driver of another vehicle pulled out onto Highway 16 northbound and collided with the fuel truck. Both vehicles went off the road and hit a guard rail.

[IMAGES: Tanker bursts into flames following deadly crash]

The driver of the tanker truck, who troopers identified as Darrell Jonas, was killed.

From Chopper 9, the truck could be seen hanging off the edge of the fuel-soaked road.

About three hours after the crash, Channel 9 crews saw the tanker -- which was carrying 8,500 gallons of fuel -- burst into flames. Black smoke billowed from it.

“I was on the phone walking away from the accident. I heard the boom, and people yelling, ‘Run,’” said Scott Hampton with Hampton’s Wrecker Service. “I was hoping the tanker wouldn’t explode. With all the fuel on there, there is no telling what damage it could have done.”

After the crash, fuel spilled into the creek next to the highway. Once the tanker caught fire, so did the creek. Flames could be seen stretching for several hundred yards.

It is unclear how much fuel made it into the creek. Officials said they’re working with the Department of Environmental Quality to determine the extent of the leak and how much of an environmental impact the spill made.

Barriers were put in portions of the creek to prevent the fuel from spreading.

From Chopper 9, we could see flames engulfing part of the creek with firefighters spraying foam toward it.

“Very hectic,” said local resident Ronnie Rombs. “It was a bad incident in the first place with (the truck) catching on fire, just unexpected.”

The woman driving the other vehicle was taken to Atrium Health.

Crews on scene spent hours cooling the overturned tanker down so the risk of reignition was low. Officials said the highway was not as badly damaged as they thought.

Firefighters used drills to create holes in the tanker to allow the fuel to be pumped out and into a new truck.

Nearby residents say stretch of Highway 16 dangerous for drivers

Nearby residents said the stretch of Highway 16 is no stranger to crashes.

“You can’t see anything on that road because all of the traffic and stuff like that,” resident Ty Lilly said.

Others who live nearby said that even after the cleanup there may still be crashes because the intersection design forces slow-moving cars to merge with traffic moving at speeds you expect to find on an interstate.

"I knew this was going to happen,” driver Mark Cleveland. "There is no way to merge into traffic."

Cleveland used to drive a tanker truck. He lives nearby and faces this intersection daily.

"All I have heard is complaints and concerns of people that travel this road every day,” Cleveland said.

Many people in the area were opposed to what the state calls a reduced conflict intersection design.

"I just hope that the NCDOT (North Carolina Department of Transportation) has not put money above people’s lives and safety,” Cleveland said.

Channel 9 spoke to NCDOT spokesperson Jen Thompson by phone Wednesday. She said there is no money allocated to build an overpass.

She said once department officials receive a report on the fatal crash from the Highway Patrol, then they will take another closer look.

"We are going to take a look at all the components and design and traffic volume and other factors,” Thompson said.

She said this design is becoming more common across the state, and speed, not the design, may have been a bigger factor in the crash.