Nearly a decade later, researchers find answers in massive semitruck explosion

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SALT LAKE CITY — On Aug. 10, 2005, the ground shook in Spanish Fork Canyon.

A semitruck carrying more than 30,000 pounds of mining explosives overturned, caught fire and exploded. The impact blew out car windshields, and smoke and flames were visible for miles.

For the past five years, researchers at the University of Utah have been studying the explosion, trying to figure out why the blast was so large and how a similar one could be prevented in the future. The answer, they say, has to do with how a trailer full of explosives is packed.

On the day of the explosion, U. research assistant Jacquie Beckvermit was hundreds of miles away in Colorado.

"I was in high school," Beckvermit said. "I actually had no idea it had happened."

But the impact that left a crater 70 feet wide also made an impact in her life. As a member of an eight-person team made up of chemists and mechanical and computer engineers, she's studied the explosion in depth.

To find out what happened, the researchers couldn't test out their theories like any other regular science experiment.

"If we were to try and find somewhere to take a truck full of explosives out into the desert, there would be all sorts of problems," said Martin Berzins, a professor working on the study.

Instead, they used one of the largest computers in the world. With support from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy they were able to find a machine to harness the power of hundreds of thousands of computers running simultaneously.

Through their computer simulations, the team found the explosives were packed so tightly together inside the trailer it didn't allow building pressure to escape, which caused the massive blast.

"If (the trucking company) had packaged it a different way than this, detonation should not have occurred," Beckvermit said.

The team also hypothesized a solution.

"We think this is the best way to package explosives right now, is you're going to do them in boxes," Beckvermit said. And spacing out the boxes in a checkerboard configuration will allow more room for pressure to expand.

The findings is the result of years of work for Beckvermit and the rest of the team — time they say was well spent if it can help save lives.

"It's pretty cool," Beckvermit said.

The team members said they know they don't have all the answers, but they've found there are techniques and practices that can make transporting explosives much safer. They hope their research will make its way to Washington, D.C., and the Department of Transportation.


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