A truck driver died as the result of injuries sustained in a crash and subsequent explosion and fire along Mariposa Road, near Dodds, on Saturday afternoon.
The crash occurred about 1:30 p.m. on August 31, with the huge plume of smoke visible for miles after the collision.
Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Terry Pinheiro said the fire department was getting calls prior to being toned out by the county dispatch center.
“We started receiving calls at the station even before we were dispatched,” Pinheiro explained. “People at the (youth) football game at the high school saw it, somebody had dialed here just before the tones went off, saying there was an explosion and big column of smoke.”
According to the California Highway Patrol report, a 2013 Peterbilt was eastbound on Mariposa Road, being driven by a 43-year-old Modesto man. A westbound 1993 International driven by Jaime H. Portillo, 29, of Galt was westbound on Mariposa east of Dodds at about 40 mph and was behind a 58-year-old Ripon man, driving a 1997 International. The Ripon driver, identified by the CHP as David A. Costa, was stopped on Mariposa to make a left hand turn, as the big rig approached from the west, heading eastbound.
Portillo, said the CHP report, made an unsafe turning movement to the left into the eastbound lane of traffic and caused a collision with the left side of the oncoming tanker. Portillo tuned back to the right and the right front of his vehicle then collided with the left side of Costa’s vehicle.
The big rig was hauling two tankers, loaded with fuel, and the tanks were ruptured as a result of the collision and immediately erupted in flames. Portillo’s vehicle came to rest in the middle of Mariposa Road, partially blocking both lanes, the big rig traveled eastbound, spilling burning fuel until it came to rest on the south shoulder of Mariposa Road.
“It was 8000 gallons of fuel, gasoline,” said Pinheiro. “The tanks spilled fuel from the point of impact, approximately 200 yards east, where the truck came to rest but everything from the point of impact, to the point of where truck came to rest was on fire.”
The fire also spread into nearby yards and open fields of dry grass, said Pinheiro. Witnesses helped the driver out of the tanker and he was eventually airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center but succumbed to his injuries there, said officials.
His name had not been released as of press time. Portillo suffered only minor injuries but refused treatment at the scene. Costa was not injured.
“We had probably six or more power poles involved, the radiant heat damaged the siding on the house that the tanker was closest to,” Pinheiro explained of the inferno.
The incident in the 24000 block of Mariposa shut down the roadway until Sunday, as crews had to allow time for the big rig remains to cool before removal.
Pinheiro said it could have been worse, with the grass fires that were sparked but a strike team returning from the Rim Fire was close enough to help.
“It was a San Joaquin County strike team, they had been two weeks at the Rim Fire, they were just returning into the county on Highway 4 and the strike team leader called, asked if I needed help,” said Pinheiro. “We were able to separate the strike team, approach it from two different directions, the strike team assisted with the landing of the helicopter and took care of two acres of grass fires.”
Escalon crews could not get west of the tanker due to the power lines being down and the intense heat, Pinheiro added, so crews were called in from Farmington and Collegeville to attack it from that side.
“We had the burn victim and the house (damaged by radiant heat) to deal with,” Pinheiro said of Escalon’s focus at the call.
Some homes in the area were evacuated as well. Strike team units came from Lathrop-Manteca, Liberty, Linden, Thornton and Clements, with Farmington, Collegeville and an additional unit from Lathrop-Manteca called in on the mutual aid.
“Initially San Joaquin County Public Works had a hard closure at Dodds and Brennan, they closed the entire roadway and thought they would have it closed until Tuesday,” Pinheiro said. “They re-evaluated on Sunday, opened it Sunday, there was about 200 yards of roadway damaged, the portion that was closest to where the tanker came to rest was damaged worse than the rest.”
Little remained of the incinerated tanker; crews cleared that away over the weekend.