50K pounds of potatoes across I-77 shuts down traffic

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A portion of Interstate 77 was shut down for hours Friday after a tractor-trailer crashed, spilling thousands of potatoes across the highway.

A Channel 9 photographer was traveling behind the truck and witnessed the crash around 2 a.m. in the southbound lanes of I-77 near West Boulevard.

The impact was so violent that the engine flew out of the big rig.

Two other drivers who were following the truck jumped out and rescued the truck driver, who was rushed to Carolinas Medical Center. Officials said he'd be OK.

“Maybe he fell sleep, and sadly hit the guard rail,” said rescuer Garrett Bonacci. “Thank the Lord he's all right.”

"We stopped immediately and saw a guy try to crawl out of the cab,” said Grant Wales. “Saw a lot fire going on, so I ran to him. His leg was pinned, tried pulling him out.”

The two rescuers and state troopers told Channel 9 that the driver said he fell asleep behind the wheel.

No other vehicles were involved in crash, which damaged about 20 feet of guard rail and concrete barrier.

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Officials said the interstate would be closed through the morning rush hour while crews worked to clean-up the 50,000 pounds of potatoes that scattered for hundreds of yards across the road.

Some potatoes were soaked in diesel fuel and clean-up crews had to separate the clean potatoes from the one's contaminated with fuel and oil.

Thousands of clean potatoes were hauled into trucks to be taken to a landfill.

Lee Shank, who is the president of Carolina Environmental, the company called to help clean up, said it could take days before they decide what to do with the potatoes mixed with fuel and oil.

"You basically had diesel fuel and oil petroleum products that are mixed with some of the potatoes," he explained. "Some of the potatoes we had to either clean or will be disclosed as off-spec food product food waste. It sounds simple but we actually go through them (the potatoes) and see where the diesel fuel stopped, and all the potatoes passed that are clean."

Drivers were advised to take the following detour: From I-77 south, take Exit 11 (I-277), follow I-277 and take exit 1-B to get back on I-77 south.

Clean-up crews initially hoped to have one lane open by 5 a.m. and all lanes open by 8 a.m. but DOT officials said all the lanes would not reopen until at least noon.

The far left lane was reopened just before 8 a.m. and a second lane was reopened around 11:30 a.m.

All lanes were reopened around 4 p.m.

Highway Patrol has not identified that driver but said he is expected to recover.

Sgt. Jeff Nash said they will decide later if he will be charged.

“I'm sure you've got failure to maintain lane control. Why he ran off the roadway, we're still investigating that,” Nash said.

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