Petra Meinke was driving home when she saw the black cloud of smoke rising above a bad traffic accident in Mustang, OK.
“I remember thinking how devastating it was,” Petra says. “I kept thinking about the family that it happened to had no idea.”
When Petra got home, she turned on the TV and watched as firefighters called if foam trucks from a nearby Air Force base to put out the fire. As she watched, Petra says, “Something was stirring inside of me. I remember distinctly telling my husband, ‘Its Jutta.’”
Jutta Harrell, Petra’s identical twin sister, was driving home from work when her car crashed with the tanker full of gasoline.
Witnesses said her car seemed to instantly ignite.
Tanker trucks have some of the strictest safety standards by law to prevent these kinds of fires. So how did it happen?
The TV cameras that day caught the culprit on camera, the Achilles Heel of all tanker trucks.
They’re called wet lines. Metal tubes that run along the underbelly of all gasoline trucks, used to transfer fuel into and out of the tanker.
They transport as much as 50 gallons at a time, but unlike the rest of the tanker, the tubing isn’t protected.
Bob Chipkevich is with the National Transportation Safety Board and says, "It’s a common sense issue that needs to be addressed and the NTSB strongly believes it needs to be fixed."
He says only petroleum products are allowed to be transported this way because the federal government outlawed the use of wet lines on all other types of hazardous material trucks more than 20 years ago.
An NTSB investigation found nearly every type of vehicle can hit these wet lines, causing a fire so intense; Chipkevich says escape can become nearly impossible.
“So, even if the person wasn’t seriously hurt because of crash injuries,” he says, “they could be really seriously hurt or killed because of the fire.”
“I feel so sure she would have survived the crash.”
Now, almost 12 years after her daughter’s crash, Jutta’s mother, Irmi Harrell, says she’s angry the problem continues to go unfixed. “If it would have saved one more life, it would be very, very important.”
The NTSB says people continue to die, most recently in July on a New Jersey highway. The Maryland truck driver barely escaped. Investigators say the driver of the small car that hit him would have survived as well if not for the fire.
But Rick Moskowitz of the American Truckers Association says the risk just isn’t worth the $8,000 to $10,000 it would cost to install equipment to purge the wet lines before they hit the road.
"Over the past ten years there have been six fatalities that have resulted from cars that have broadsided the tank truck and ruptured the wet lines," Moskowitz says.
“The six fatalities are of course tragic, but you need to balance that against the fact there are 50,000 shipments of gasoline every day in this country."
But Fox 5 obtained an internal US Department of Transportation memo, never before published, that says these type of hazardous material accidents have been under-reported as much as 60% to 90%. The memo warns the government has probably missed large accidents that have resulted in fatalities.
Critics also say many tanker fires, like the recent blaze on Montrose Road in Rockville, burn so hot, it becomes impossible for investigators to know for sure what sparked the fire.
“It’s unacceptable when such accidents are preventable,” says Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN). The Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he’s pushing a bill that would force the tankers to purge their wet lines.
He says instead of $10,000, the real price tag is less than $2,000.
“It’s not going to break the bank,” Oberstar says. “There’s never a good time to spend money, I guess, on safety until someone dies.”
But Moskowitz says “in this case, the purging system is a cure that’s actually worse than the disease.” He explains that, "In order to install that technology, you actually have to weld, use hot equipment, onto the pipe. In that 10 year period, the six fatalities that were experienced, there's been more than 20 fatalities resulting from doing hot work on tank trucks."
Irmi Harrell scoffs at that claim. “No, no, sorry. I don’t buy that at all,” she says. “To me, it’s a lame excuse for fixing a problem that is really inexpensive to fix.”
She says she’s heard all the excuses before and “it hurts. It brings it all back. There is no end to it. I personally wouldn’t want anybody to go through the hurt. It hurts too much and it will hurt until the day I leave this earth.”
She says until the law gets passed, she and Petra won’t be able to pass a tanker truck without worrying who will be next.
WTTG FOX 5 & myfoxdc
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