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Fuel truck smashes into city sewer line

March 9, 2011

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Public works director Mark Lago, Fire Chief Devon Wells and OSP trooper Mark Jubitz examine the truck that slid down an embankment from I-84 Friday afternoon.

What started out like an action movie turned into a 24-hour drama as local agencies and companies worked to free a semi-truck carrying nearly 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel which crashed off the embankment of I-84 a few hundred yards west of exit 63 at 4 p.m. Friday, March 4.

The truck, driven by Eric Christiansen, 58, of Vancouver, Wash., was en route to Pasco from Portland when it reportedly suffered a mechanical failure in its trailer.

It swerved off the road and into the guardrail where it momentarily came to a stop.

"I was talking to 9-1-1 and I started hearing all of this creaking and groaning … it was just like special effects in a movie," Christiansen said as he stood on the side of the road looking down at the wreckage of the truck.

As the truck began to slide over through the guardrail, Christiansen jumped out of the truck.

"When the door handle worked, I didn't need an invitation," he said.

The truck jackknifed down the embankment with the cab slamming into - and being crushed by - a column supporting a sewer line at the bottom of the embankment.

Despite the jarring impact, the sewer line was not damaged and neither of the large diesel tanks ruptured.

The truck's own fuel tank did burst, spilling a small of diesel fuel at the site, which was largely cleaned up by spill-absorbing pads.

The response became a who's who of government agencies, with Oregon State Police, Hood River Fire, Hood River County Sheriff, Hood River Police, ODOT, the Department of Environmental Quality and Hood River Public Works all responding. Eventually the trucking company, a construction company, Union-Pacific Railroad and a tree-cutting business also got in on the action.

"It could have been much, much worse," said City of Hood River Public Works Director Mark Lago.

Lago said the sewer line, which is the only above-ground line in the city, serves as the main line for half of the city.

"If it hadn't hit the column I believe it would have gone right through the pipe," Lago said.

The right lane to I-84 was closed at the site of the accident until Saturday afternoon as crews worked to first offload the fuel from the tankers and then figure out a way to remove the truck.

Once the fuel had been pumped out, Crestline Construction used an excavator to dig a pit next to the cab of the truck. The truck was then slid into the pit and pulled out, so that it would not cause further damage to the sewer line it had been resting on.

Before the truck could be pulled out, Columbia Tree Services had to remove several trees from the area, including one that had been sheared completely off by the sliding truck and was being supported by only a few limbs on the tree it came to rest against.

Kris Zorza of Columbia Tree Service said that if the tree had fallen down it would have likely punched a hole in the diesel tank on the trailer below it.

"I was rather surprised it didn't," he said. "Three limbs were holding the whole thing up."

What could have been a major disaster in terms of both loss of life and environmental impact wound up turning into a good tool for local agencies to look back on should such a bizarre incident ever occur again.

"It was quite a process but it worked out flawlessly," said Hood River Fire Chief Devon Wells.

Traffic was rerouted around the accident for nearly 24 hours before the mess was finally cleaned up.

The situation proved to be unique for nearly everyone involved.

"I've seen many truck accidents," Wells said. "But I've never seen one where a truck goes 50 feet down an embankment and winds up on a sewer line."

As for Christiansen, he managed to walk away from the accident in a manner befitting an action movie star.

Even though his truck was a complete loss, he suffered only a cut on his right pointer finger - inflicted as he made his quick exit from the truck.

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