The director of Washington County Emergency Services said he was optimistic that Interstate 70 east would be open to traffic sometime Saturday morning after the roadway was shut down Friday after a tractor-trailer carrying explosive material caught on fire near Clear Spring.
Kevin Lewis, director of Washington County Emergency Services, said a private contractor from Baltimore and crews from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland State Highway Administration remained on the scene well into Friday night cleaning up hazardous residue.
The eastbound lanes of the highway reopened at about 2 a.m., according to the Washington County Emergency Communications Center.
Lewis said rescue workers received a call at about 11:30 a.m. for a fire on a tractor-trailer carrying explosives.
After the call for the fire was dispatched, officials closed both lanes of the highway between exits 12 and 18. The westbound lanes were reopened to traffic after a little more than an hour, but the eastbound side remained closed at press time. Officers detoured motorists onto U.S. 40.
John Bentley, chief of Washington County Special Operations, said Friday as he stood next to the charred remains of the trailer that the big rig was hauling products used to mix explosives.
“It was on fire when units arrived,” Bentley said. “The units evacuated and got everyone out of the danger area. We went ahead and waited and let the product burn, which is a safe procedure to follow.”
He said the Maryland Department of the Environment was called, as was a contractor from Baltimore to clean up the accident scene.
“They’ll mitigate it and clean up any residue,” Bentley said. “There is still product in the roadway.”
Charles Mundey, Clear Spring deputy fire chief, said both sides of the interstate were closed because of corrosive smoke and the risk of an explosion.
“It was a good hour and a half until (the tractor-trailer) burned down,” he said.
Mundey said firefighters stayed about 400 feet away from the trailer as it burned.
Hardly anything was left of the trailer after the fire burned out. Residue could be seen on the ground, and a large portion of grass along the median was charred.
Mundey said rescue workers took beverages to motorists who were trapped in traffic, and water from a tanker truck was sprayed on a trailer full of hogs to cool them off.
Officials said no one was injured in the accident, possibly because the driver was able to free the tractor from the trailer.
Ameil Meyer of Middleburgh, N.Y., said he pulled up on the burning tractor-trailer and got out of his vehicle to help.
“I helped the guy get the tractor unhooked, and it just went up in flames and here we are,” Meyer said. “He got to save his tractor, and I got to do my good deed for the day.”
Busy Graham of Royal Oak, Md., said she was driving home from a family vacation in Milwaukee when she saw the fire.
“The flames kept intensifying and the firetruck pulled right up to the truck,” she said. “I had just seen firemen get up to the truck, and I saw them re-emerge from the smoke and knew they were OK.”
“They got the hose out and started it, then stopped and told everybody to get out of their cars and walk back,” she said. “They let it burn.”
Kevin Wetherby, 36, of Jamestown, N.Y., said he, his wife and three children were on eastbound I-70 heading to Washington, D.C., for his sister’s wedding when he realized something was wrong.
“I kept smelling smoke and burning rubber and saw the tractor-trailer, so I pulled over and called 911,” he said.
Wetherby said firefighters arrived and shut down the road.
In Clear Spring, residents seemed to be taking the increased traffic coming through the town on U.S. 40 in stride.
“This is the routine, this is what occurs when an accident happens within several miles of here on 70,” said Jeff Inskeep-Fox, who lives on Cumberland Street, the town’s main street.
He described a line of trucks coming through town as being like a “wagon train.”
Rodney Rector, owner of R&M Clear Spring Wine and Beverage on the corner of Cumberland and Mill streets, said he was watching traffic go by and saw license plates from as far away at Ontario, Georgia and New York, among other places.
Staff writer C.J. Lovelace contributed to this story.