A Thursday night, June 23 crash on the Ohio Turnpike involving a tanker truck carrying 3,000 gallons of pressurized liquid hydrogen claimed one life, and snarled traffic in Fulton County for about 27 hours.
The crash at the 32-mile marker of the eastbound lanes, described as the first of its kind worldwide, occurred at 8:49 pm.
It resulted in a fire that burned one semi rig so thoroughly pieces were fused to the pavement.
That section of pavement, at the 32-mile marker approximately two miles west of Wauseon, had to be cut out and replaced before traffic could flow.
As the liquid hydrogen turned into a gas it escaped the tank– a kind of giant, insulated bottle– and caught fire.
Firefighters and others decided the safest way to deal with the escaping gas was to allow it to burn, while at the same time keeping the tank cool.
Cooling prevented a rise of pressure within the tank and a possible explosion.
To keep the tank cool, firefighters set up remote nozzles that sprayed 25,000 gallons of water per hour on the tank for 17 straight hours.
A total of 455,200 gallons of water was trucked from a hydrant at the intersection of St. Rts. 66 and 2 in Burlington-Elmira down the turnpike to the crash scene, where it was pumped down as many as 1,000 feet of hose to the remote nozzles.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol identified the deceased as Larry D. Maxwell, 50, of Springfield.
He was driving an eastbound semi which struck the rear of the semi tanker rig.
Rick Sluder, Wauseon fire chief, said Maxwell died on impact.
Andy Brodbeck, Archbold fire chief, said Maxwell’s body wasn’t recovered until the fire was out and the area made safe.
Sluder said it was determined there had never been a crash in the history of the hydrogen gas transportation industry where the entire control valve system, located at the rear of a hydrogen tank trailer, had been destroyed; and therefore, there was no way to contain the product.
There were reports that the area around the crash would be evacuated up to one mile away, but Brodbeck said other than motorists on the turnpike, no evacuation was ordered.
In a press release, Sluder said Thursday night there were actually three crashes on the turnpike.
The first occurred at 7:01 pm at the 34.4-mile marker of the eastbound lanes. It involved a semi and two other vehicles.
Ambulance crews either treated at the scene or transported a total of eight people, all with minor injuries.
Rescue crews from Archbold, Delta, Fayette and Wauseon were dispatched to that scene.
Traffic in the eastbound lanes was slowed after that crash.
Brodbeck said the road had been cleared and rescue squads were either ready to leave or were leaving when the second crash occurred at 8:14 pm, at about the 34- mile marker.
That crash, again in the eastbound lanes, involved three commercial vehicles, one of which struck the rear of another and pushed it into a third.
There were no major injuries, but wreckage blocked both eastbound lanes. Eastbound traffic was brought to a standstill.
An official decision on whether the traffic problems were the cause of, or a factor in, the second and third mishaps will wait until the OSHP investigations are concluded and reports are complete.
While rescue crews were wrapping up their work at the second crash, Fulton County sheriff dispatchers advised them of the third wreck at the 32-mile marker at 8:49 pm.
Sluder said the fire from that wreck “could easily be seen from the 34-mile post, and the available units immediately responded, along with additional support units from surrounding fire departments.”
The driver and passenger of the tanker escaped the scene and informed fire crews of the contents.
Firefighters and rescue crews immediately faced a myriad of problems and questions, ranging from whether the hydrogen tank was ruptured to people in vehicles that were essentially trapped between the wreckage from the crash at the 34- mile marker and the fire at the 32-mile marker.
Additionally, westbound traffic on the turnpike was stopped to allow responding fire trucks to travel eastbound in the westbound lanes to the crash scene.
Brodbeck said people trapped between the wrecks left their vehicles and walked east to safety.
Motorists in the eastbound lanes were eventually taken out by crossing the median to the westbound lanes.
Initially, fire crews attacked the fire with water and foam, but quickly pumped their tanks dry.
A shuttle involving water tankers had to be established.
A 300-foot “safety zone” was established around the burning tanker, but that meant the westbound lanes were closed. The quickest available hydrant where tankers could refill was at Burlington-Elmira.
Dennis Howell, Archbold village administrator, said the large amount of water used wasn’t a problem for the Archbold municipal system.
“The eight-inch main going to Elmira-Burlington is more than capable of supplying that amount of water,” Howell said.
“The fire departments, as per SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), notified the water department before opening the hydrants. There was no undue stress on the system.
“While 455,000 gallons sounds like a lot of water, it was spread out over 17 hours.”
Based on figures provided by Howell, 455,000 gallons of water is enough to supply water to 65 families of four for a month, or fill the Archbold Swimming Pool twice, with 55,000 gallons left over.
Tankers from 15 area fire departments assisted, including all seven Fulton County departments, three Williams County departments, three Henry County departments, and four Lucas County departments, not counting a tanker from the United States Air Force 180th Air National Guard unit based at Toledo Express Airport.
Tankers were using the westbound lanes to get to and from the scene, but initial problems resulted as cars trapped west of the fire were crossing the median, both at designated crossovers and through the grassy areas.
Over the public safety radio system, one firefighter described them as “rogue cars.”
Ohio Department of Transportation workers were called to place barricades to try to block traffic, but dispatchers told fire chiefs ODOT couldn’t come onto the turnpike, operated by the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, without OTIC permission.
An exasperated firefighter said over the radio, “Tell them (ODOT) they have the fire chief’s permission!”
“It took several hours for turnpike maintenance, with the assistance of ODOT, to get this under control and provide traffic safety for the operating fire department tankers,” Sluder said.
The hydrogen tanker was operated by Air Products and Chemicals, Allentown, Pa.
Sluder said, “After several conference calls with company representatives about the nature of the product being transported and the equipment that was being used in transport, it was decided that ‘keeping the tank cool with streams of water’ was the best and safest course of action given the circumstances of nearby civilians and limited access to the scene.”
Air Products sent representatives from Butler, Ind., Cleveland, and Buffalo, N.Y., who began arriving early Friday morning, June 24.
In addition, there were also conference calls “with company and industry hydrogen experts worldwide.
“Live video was sent from the scene to company representatives showing the conditions of their vehicle and the fire behavior emanating from their vessel (tank),” Sluder said.
Those from Air Products told firefighters as long as the tank could be kept cool, the pressure inside would remain low, thus avoiding an explosion.
With vehicles diverted off the turnpike, there was bumper-to-bumper, sometimes stop-andgo traffic on area highways, including St. Rts. 108 and 109, US20, and US20A.
Vern Fisher, a lieutenant with the Swanton (turnpike) post of OSHP, said, “we had people everywhere” attempting to direct traffic and keep it flowing.
That included ODOT personnel, Fulton County sheriff deputies, and OSHP troopers from as far away as Bowling Green.
Sluder said it was Friday afternoon before the pressure in the burning tank reached zero, but it still wasn’t totally safe.
Air Products dispatched a semi tanker loaded with helium gas from Dayton.
Helium was pumped into the damaged tanker. While hydrogen burns, helium is considered “inert.” It won’t burn.
The helium displaced any residual oxygen inside the tank, preventing any hydrogen left inside from burning.
“Around 8 pm, Friday evening, this scene was considered safe, and westbound traffic was allowed to travel again on the turnpike,” Sluder said.
Debris from the crash was cleared and by midnight Friday night, traffic was moving in both directions on the turnpike.
Brian Newbacher, a spokesman for the OTIC, said a 100 square-foot section of pavement had to be removed and replaced.
“Pieces of the truck (that hit the tanker) were fused into the road by the high temperatures” of the fire, he said.
Workers from Gerken Paving, Napoleon, and turnpike maintenance workers removed the damaged section and laid new pavement.
Both eastbound lanes were open at 2:15 am, Saturday, Newbacher said.
The crash wasn’t the only fatal accident that occurred in Fulton County last week.
OSHP reported Daniel Dionyssiou, 63, Toledo, was killed when his eastbound sport-utility vehicle drove off St. Rt. 120 west of Co. Rd. 7 about 12:10 am, Saturday.
A passenger, Nicholas Barney, 38, Oregon, was transported from the crash scene by helicopter to Toledo Hospital, where he was listed in stable condition.