Motorists help rescue truck driver after tanker catches fire

Petras Barcas

Jerry Reeves was on his way to a dentist appointment when he exited Interstate 55 on Lemont Road and saw a tanker truck fully engulfed in flames.

“I was shocked to see this semi in a full burn. I pulled down past it and parked. There might have been 50 people out there, standing around,” he said. “I couldn’t believe no one was helping the driver.”

Reeves said he and two other men helped the driver remove his burning clothing.

“He was yelling and screaming, because he was on fire. We pulled his pants and shirt off, and he was down to his underwear, still conscious the whole time,” Reeves said. “There was a moment when one of the tires on the truck blew, and I thought that was it, we’re dead.”

The driver of the truck, while injured, survived the fire thanks to the quick thinking of Reeves and the other motorists.

Although no lanes on the interstate were closed, traffic was snarled for hours on the expressway as people watched the smoke pour into the air. About 8,700 gallons of gasoline from the tanker went up in smoke. Firefighters were occupied for nearly three hours as the fire raged.

Reeves, a mechanic from Joliet, said the fire spread quickly across the whole exit ramp. The heat was so intense, he said, it felt like his skin was shrinking around his bones.

“I was there probably 10 minutes, and by the time I left, the paramedics were just getting there to help out. You couldn’t drive on the ramp anymore.”

He did make it to the dental appointment but was glad it was just a routine cleaning.

“Once I got there and the adrenaline wore off, I was a little shaky,” Reeves said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Credit goes to the other two guys that helped as well. If that first guy hadn’t started running over there, I’m not sure I would have followed.”

Arely Arredondo, a clerk at the Shell gas station about a quarter-mile north of the scene, said she heard three small explosions.

“There were three small explosions, and then ambulances went by on Lemont Road,” she said. “We went outside and saw the smoke, but it didn’t smell that bad.”

Arredondo said she never really felt in danger because firefighters were at the gas station almost the entire time.

“They would have told us if we had to evacuate, so I wasn’t too worried,” she said.

Andy Dostal, who lives about a half-mile from the scene, described the scene as looking like a plane crash.

“It smelled like somebody left the stove on in my house,” he said. “I went outside and the smoke was so black and thick, it looked like a plane crash. I stayed in and watched it on the news.”

Darien-Woodridge Fire Protection District Chief Wayne Messenger said the fire was allowed to burn until the area could be contained to prevent runoff.

“We didn’t want to hose it down right away and have the gasoline enter the water supply,” he said.

The driver of the tanker initially was taken to Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove and then was transferred to Stroger Hospital in Chicago with burns.

His injuries were not life-threatening. Speed reportedly was the main cause of the crash, which occurred on the southbound I-55 entrance ramp. According to the Illinois state police, the driver was cited for driving too fast for conditions and improper lane use.

The accident was the second crash that snarled traffic on I-55 on Wednesday. Earlier Wednesday morning, a beer truck carrying around 1,400 cases of Beck's beer overturned and shut down a northbound ramp on Interstate 55 near the Tri-State Tollway near Burr Ridge for seven hours. The driver was cited for failure to reduce speed and driving too fast for conditions.

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