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Arizona truck driver killed when crude oil catches fire, shutting down I-80

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JEREMY RANCH, Summit County — A truck driver from Arizona was killed Wednesday when his semitrailer ruptured a tanker hauling crude oil, which ignited and burned his cab, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.

Wendell Lewis, 67, of Maricopa, was going uphill near Parleys Summit on I-80 just before 11 p.m. UHP troopers say Lewis was moving slow or had come to a stop due to the snowpacked road.

Another semitrailer that was pulling double tankers filled with crude oil attempted to go around Lewis' truck. That's when Lewis' semitrailer "rolled back and the trailer hit the tank of the first semi, tearing it open. The tank began spilling crude oil. The crude oil then ignited," UHP troopers said in a statement.

Investigators believe that Lewis may have been trying to get his semitrailer moving again. But when that happened, the truck slid backward and may have jack-knifed, hitting the large tanker, which UHP Sgt. Todd Royce said was "full."

Park City Fire Chief Paul Hewitt said the double tankers were hauling approximately 11,000 gallons of crude oil in three compartments. Two of the compartments remained intact.

About 1,500 gallons of oil burned and 200 spilled to the ground, Hewitt said.

"It sounds like it did ignite very quickly," he said. "Very early now in the investigation, so I'm not sure I would make a definitive determination at this point, but yeah, it sounds like he did not have time to get out."

What ignited the crude oil was still under investigation Thursday.

The ensuing fire burned for over two hours. Lewis' body was found in the cab of his truck.

Emergency crews from the Park City Fire District and Unified Fire Authority quickly responded with five engines, two water tankers and three hazardous materials vehicles. A specialized truck used for spreading foam on large fires, such as when a plane crash happens, was brought in from the Utah National Guard at Camp Williams to assist, Hewitt said.

The incident resulted in a complete shutdown of westbound I-80 starting at Jeremy Ranch for nearly 11 hours. It partially reopened at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. One lane remained closed as crews from the Utah Department of Transportation assessed the damage the fire caused to the road.

Eastbound I-80 was closed from about 11 p.m. until 1 a.m. Traffic was rerouted during that time through several detours, Royce said, so it did not come to a complete stop.

But the fire created an immense backup for westbound traffic. Many commuters attempted to find an alternative route.

Nine vehicles became stuck on Jeremy Ranch Road while trying to cut over from I-80 to state Route 65 into Emigration Canyon, said Utah State Parks Lt. Eric Stucki. The dirt road is not maintained in the winter.

Efforts were being made Thursday to remove the stranded vehicles. Some of those vehicles got as far as 6 miles in before the drivers were unable to travel any further.

Contributing: Dave Cawley

Editor's note: Officials originally reported the driver as being from Colorado. This story has been updated with his correct hometown of Maricopa, Arizona.


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