By CLINT FOSTER
New details have surfaced regarding the large semi-truck carrying sod that was engulfed in flames early Monday afternoon, resulting in two grass fires and a four-car accident. The truck's cab caught fire while heading eastbound on Interstate 20, between the 371- and 373-mile markers before the driver pulled over to the side of the road.
Gordon and Strawn Volunteer Fire Departments responded to the burning truck on the south side of the interstate and controlled the flaming vehicle and residual grass fires within an hour. But the situation went from bad to worse when a Dodge pickup hit a minivan near the scene, causing a four-car pile-up including another semi hauling hazardous, flammable xylene. The effected portion of I-20 had to be shut down most of Monday afternoon as the fire crews, four Texas Department of Public Safety officers, four sheriff's deputies, a Texas Department of Transportation crew, Precinct 5 Constable Gary Morris and others worked to get the roadway clear and safe.
Santo Emergency Medical Services transported passengers from the minivan involved in the ensuing accident, carrying a woman and three children. DPS Senior Trooper Gary M. Rozzell confirmed that it was the mother who was transported with her 7-year-old son, who complained that he smelled something that upset his stomach. Rozzell said the boy was treated and released from the hospital.
Gordon Firefighter James Dickson said that throughout the process of fighting the fire, multiple cars slowed to a stop in the left lane to take photos or videos of the burning truck with their phones. Dickson added that it is not unusual for a few people to slow down and look, but in this case it seemed like almost every passing vehicle stopped to gawk. He said that smoke in the area was heavy and visibility was low, making the practices of these onlookers all the more dangerous.
"We were sitting there on the hose trying to put the stuff out and you'd see people on their phones," Dickson said. "It's like, 'Really? Pay attention to the dang road.' We see that a lot. Most of the time it's a passenger, but people driving by themselves will still have their phone out. Some of them put the phone up, and they're watching the road, but they've got the phone over there videoing so they can look at it later. I guess, I don't know what the heck they're doing."
Dickson could not confirm if the four-car wreck was directly caused by a driver on their phone, not paying attention to the road. Before the accident occurred, Dickson said he had peeled off from the burning truck to help take care of the second small grass fire about half a mile west because another fire engine had arrived on the scene.
Rozzell said he could not definitively say that a phone was involved in the four-car accident, but he surmised that the driver of the Dodge pickup would probably not have been taking pictures.
"That particular crash happened a good half mile behind where the fire was," Rozzell said. "I would not suspect [the Dodge driver] to be taking pictures or anything; he was too far back and couldn't see it. He could see the smoke maybe, but that's about all."
Rozzell added that the speed limit on that part on I-20 in 75 MPH. Therefore it is possible that the driver could have been on his phone, not paying attention, and not been able to stop from hitting the other cars while going such a high speed.
Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer said, if this accident was indeed phone-related, it would not be the first time that cellphone-related distractions have caused a serious road hazard. He recounted one incident on July 17 of this year when two of his deputies and a constable responded to a head-on collision around mile marker 386 on I-20, in the rain, no less.
Mercer said the two deputies were outside of their cars, blue and red lights flashing, in the affected lane of traffic. Just then, the driver of a large semi came barreling toward them, traveling between 60 and 80 MPH, while texting on his cellphone. The deputies saw him and sprinted into the bar ditch and across the median, leaving their squad cars behind. The truck driver looked up at the last minute, in time to swerve around the cars, his tires screeching on the wet pavement. Mercer said that one of his officers told him if the truck driver would have looked up one second later, he would have plowed the police cars right off the road.
"All of us that have been in law enforcement very long have stories like this where we've had close calls with cars," Mercer said. "The point is that the red and blue lights up on top are not just for looks, they mean slow down, pay attention, something's wrong." Mercer continued.
"[Using a phone while driving is] not against the law in the state of Texas, but all I'm getting at is if you see red and blue lights, you need to pay attention. Because these guys are absolutely putting their lives on the line trying to slow people down. You would not believe how many people just don't pay attention to any of that. You would be amazed at the number of times we've had close calls. We've had people run over in this county on traffic stops because people just weren't paying attention."
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