UPDATED: Northbound I-15 reopens in Virgin River gorge after semi crash creates ‘fireball’

Semitractor-trailer crashes and explodes on northbound Interstate 15 on Bridge no. 7, 15 miles south of St. George, Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, Aug. 8, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Beaver-Dam Littlefield Fire, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — All northbound travel came to a halt on Interstate 15 in the Virgin River Gorge for much of Saturday after a semitractor-trailer crashed and then exploded, igniting a brush fire below one of the corridor’s bridges early in the morning.

Semitractor-trailer crashes and explodes on northbound Interstate 15 on Bridge no. 7, 15 miles south of St. George, Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, Aug. 8, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Beaver-Dam Littlefield Fire, St. George News

Updated Aug. 8, 6 p.m. MDT: I-15 reopens in both directions.

Northbound I-15 was closed from the Black Rock exit to mile marker 23 for more than 13 hours before being reopened at 6 p.m. MDT. The crash took place on a bridge on the interstate in Arizona. A bridge inspector is on site analyzing the span’s stability.

Emergency crews continue to clear debris and both northbound lanes from mile post 8 through the crash scene at mile post 23 remain closed as this report publishes. Traffic is being diverted onto Old Highway 91. 

Sgt. John Bottoms with Arizona Department of Public Safety told St. George News northbound traffic was backed up from exit 122 in Mesquite, Nevada to the Beaver Dam off-ramp in Arizona.

“I would imagine that is taking a very long time to get through. Many people are trying to use the Old Highway from Mesquite which is causing traffic to exit the interstate much slower,” Bottoms said. “I’m hearing that tempers are short and people are driving like lunatics on the Old Highway.”

Shortly after 4 a.m. MST, troopers and emergency personnel were dispatched to bridge No. 7 near mile marker 23.

Responders arrived to find the rear of the semi’s trailer hanging off of the bridge ablaze, with a driver who was able to kick out the windshield and climb out of the truck. The driver was found nearby uninjured, Trooper Thomas Callister with the Arizona Department of Public Safety said.

“Seriously, this is one of the worst wrecks I have ever seen,” Callister said, “And this driver literally kicked his way out of the cab and didn’t have a scratch on him.”

Seconds after the driver freed himself from the cab, the truck exploded. “Witnesses said the whole thing blew up,” Callister said, recounting a number of statements provided by motorists who witnessed the crash.

At the time of the crash, the semi was heading north with a load of food products, when the driver lost control of the truck as it took out about 100 feet of guardrail, and then continued along until it struck the edge of the concrete siding of Bridge no. 7.

Traffic backed up in Mesquite, Nevada, on Aug. 8, 2020 on northbound Interstate 15. | Photo courtesy of Sabrina Cox, St. George News

The impact ripped the undercarriage away from the truck and sent the trailer off the side of the bridge, and seconds later the fuel tanks ruptured, which “created a fireball,” Callister said, and sent the trailer off the bridge where it was left hanging off the side.

The fire spread through the semitractor and then through the trailer’s load, as food products and the skin of the trailer began to disintegrate. Burning debris dropped to the brush below, causing flames to spread through the brush alongside the Virgin River.

The Bureau of Land Management sent in fire crews that began tackling the blaze burning below the bridge, while Beaver Dam-Littlefield and St. George Fire crews fought the flames burning through the truck and across the bridge itself.

Fire crews completely extinguished the fire that was burning through the semi, and BLM crews have the fire contained, Callister said, but crews will remain at the scene monitoring it.

“The trailer is still hanging off the bridge even as we speak,” Callister said, adding that a crane was dispatched to the scene to pull the destroyed trailer from the side of the bridge.

Road and repair crews were also brought in, as well as bulldozers, a front-loader, dumpsters and other specialized equipment needed to pull what remains of the trailer from the side of the bridge to prevent it from falling into the river according to Bottoms.

The crash took place on Bridge no. 7, which was part of a series of Arizona Department of Transportation’s extensive bridge rehabilitation projects that have been ongoing since 2014 along the I-15 Virgin River Gorge corridor in Arizona. The deck of the bridge was replaced in 2014, after crews first removed the surface layer, and it was resurfaced in 2019 to extend the life of the bridge along the busy corridor that serves as a primary route for commercial and passenger travel.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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