A View From Glen Hill: Christmas Eve tragedy averted

Crimson flames soared into the sky from a propane-gas truck on the morning of this Christmas Eve, transforming Route 7 just north of the railroad bridge leading into Wilton Center into a scene befitting a major action movie. Thanks to a constellation of fortunate circumstances including a missed turn, favorable weather conditions, a skilled propane truck driver, and our town’s quick and highly effective emergency responders, this very scary incident was quickly brought under control. It could easily have been much worse.

The enflamed propane truck had a full tank. Its first delivery was to be to a store right next to the gasoline station located immediately south of the railroad bridge. However, as he traveled northbound on Route 7, the truck’s driver realized that he had gone past the store and so turned left at the next light, onto the road leading down to Wilton Commons and Trackside. After turning around, he was getting ready to enter Route 7 southbound when he noticed smoke coming from his engine and underneath his vehicle. He stopped the propane truck by the light and chocked his rear wheels even as flames were beginning to shoot out from the engine compartment — so that if his truck’s braking system failed, the truck would not roll back downhill into Wilton Commons or Trackside.

As the driver began running up Route 7 to flag motorists away from his truck, Police Chief Crosby happened to pass by in his cruiser and alerted our fire department as he took over management of the scene. By this point, the truck’s entire engine compartment and cab were fully engulfed in flames that shot up dozens of feet into the sky. The paint on the lead edge of the truck’s large propane tank was beginning to discolor as our firefighters arrived and quickly doused the flames. They did so using their on-board 750 gallon water supply even as they also had to plan to supplement it by stretching hose from a hydrant located down this access road and, given the lay of the land, running that supply hose within 30 feet of the side of the still-simmering truck.

The fortunate circumstances in this accident are many: It happened on a mild day with no wind, the driver was not making his delivery next to the gasoline station when the fire erupted and had the courage and presence of mind to chock his truck, Chief Crosby happened on the scene immediately, and our firefighters acted with their usual speed and courage to quell the flames even in the face of a highly volatile load. Other factors also helped including, ironically, that the truck’s propane tank was full when the fire happened. A full tank means less chance for more volatile gases to have formed above the liquid propane in the tank.

It made one really proud to watch how our town’s emergency services responded to this potentially catastrophic fire, and in addition to mentioning our police and firefighters, I’d be remiss not to mention CERT whose traffic-control work releases our police and firefighters to their highest and best use. In fact, CERT’s community volunteers get called out by our town’s emergency services in a variety of circumstances where additional trained hands can help. But most of the time, those call-outs relate to traffic control around road closures like this one. CERT’s very effective leadership team quickly canvasses the rest of CERT’s membership for available volunteers and sees that all of the needed equipment is on hand on-site.

CERT call-up incidents are not infrequent. A month ago, a tree fell taking power lines with it that blocked Route 7 in north Wilton in both directions for several hours; several months earlier, there was another tree-related Route 7 closure; a few months before that, just up the road from the propane-truck fire, a dump truck’s elevated body came into contact with a high-power line engulfing the truck in flames and shutting down Route 7 completely; and just this past Sunday, a fire caused another major Route 7 closure, near Orem’s.

It’s been wisely said that when you’re doing traffic-direction duty, assume drivers are out to kill you! That hyperbolic aphorism is meant to reflect the presence of distracted driving, driver impatience, and failure to see those doing traffic direction. So when we come upon these often frustrating scenes, let’s remember that those out there directing traffic and helping with detour directions are likely to be your neighbors volunteering their time. Be alert to their safety and maybe even say something nice to them — they’ll really appreciate it!