Courier Staff Writer
If firefighters are running from a wreck, it’s probably a good idea for you to stay back, too.
“It’s training and common sense,” said Lt. Tom McAndrew of the Ottumwa Police Department. “When you see a fuel truck rollover, everybody knows to keep back.”
And in a situation like the rollover accident Wednesday morning, the police know the firefighters will be calling the shots.
“We just key off of what they say. This is their business,” he said. “You see a firefighter backing away, you’d better back away, too.”
Ottumwa Deputy Chief Cory Benge agreed that’s a pretty good way to look at it. But it’s also the reason police were rerouting Ottumwa traffic around the junction of Highway 34 and 149 for hours.
Benge said he was the second responder on the scene, where, before the bypass was built, the junction was called 34 and 63. Upon seeing that the truck was carrying some sort of fuel, the deputy chief immediately requested all traffic be kept away from the busy junction of two highways.
“It wasn’t but two minutes and there wasn’t a car in sight,” Benge said. “OPD and the [Iowa] State Patrol did a great job. The first step was to stop everyone, keep everyone away, then determine what we have.”
It was diesel fuel, which, said Lt. McAndrew, is actually one of the safer substances being transported through Ottumwa every day. Benge agreed.
“Diesel is relatively stable. Our risk of fire explosion was very minimal, but we did have firetrucks on scene with hand lines just in case. That’s standard.”
He said the tanker rounded the corner from Highway 34 in order to get onto the Wapello Street Bridge heading north. The vehicle, which had more than 7,000 gallons of fuel in back, tipped over and ruptured its tank. The driver suffered only minor injuries, but a few hundred gallons of diesel fuel spilled out.
“Our job is to contain the hazard and mitigate the emergency,” Benge said.
Both fire and police department officials said that nearly every Ottumwa agency responded. Public Works put down truckloads of sand to contain the spill. Streets put up barricades and cones to provide responders a “safe” place to work, and Public Information attempted to reach motorists to stay clear of the junction near Ottumwa Park and the soccer fields.
Iowa Department of Transportation helped stop and reroute traffic.
McAndrew said he was able to use a hazardous situation system for the first time to monitor the situation — from his office.
“I could see the location of our patrol cars, Iowa State Patrol, DOT. I can see everybody responding. And using the downtown cameras, I could see 34 and Quincy, and that traffic was backed up there. I was able to dispatch an officer to that area.”
Highway 34 and 149 is one of the major intersections in Ottumwa. Routing traffic around it put pressure on smaller streets. Church Street was backed up Wednesday as motorists pulled off the highway to avoid the blocked intersection. McAndrew said he was able to get extra officers out to move traffic around the city when the Emergency Response Team finished serving a warrant. He said he happy with the way officers got traffic moving again.
McAndrew estimated there were four or five hours of detours for safety reasons. Some drivers had to be detoured all the way to the intersection of Mary Street and Highway 63. For example, at one point, nearly all traffic was stopped as firefighters began to use drills to cut into the metal shell of the tanker.
“We had to pump off the fuel because the tow truck can’t pull the [tanker] upright with 56,000 pounds of fuel in it,” Benge said.
The truck operator, Cobb Oil, will pay for cleanup and will work with the DNR to determine what it will cost, he added.