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A canyon inferno

Published August 11, 2005 1:14 am

Truck with explosives tears out a 30-foot crater on U.S. 6
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SPANISH FORK CANYON - It was bedtime for Troy Lysfjord, a co-driver in a tractor-trailer carrying explosives on U.S. Highway 6 through Spanish Fork Canyon on Wednesday afternoon.

One minute Lysfjord, 37, was lying down, the next he was being thrown around the back of the cab.



The tractor-trailer driven by Travis Stewart took a curve too fast, police said, slid off the road and onto its side.

Lysfjord knew there was no time to waste.

"There was no doubt it was going to go," he said.

Lysfjord helped Stewart out of his seat belt and they climbed out of the driver's-side door with the help of nearby motorists.

By that time, between 20 and 30 other people who had been traveling on the highway had gathered around the wreckage to help. They were relieved to see the crew climb out of the truck alive.

But the mood quickly turned frantic: "It's explosives," Lys- fjord shouted. "Get out of here."

He said there was roughly three minutes between the time of the crash and the explosion. Lysfjord managed to run about 75 yards away from the truck.

"Not far enough," he said. "I was close enough that it literally picked me up off my feet and threw me on the ground. It was a tremendous force. I felt it literally all the way through me."

The R&R Co. truck was loaded with 35,500 pounds of cast boosters, an explosive used in mining operations, and was on its way from the Ensign-Bickford Co. explosives plant in Spanish Fork to Oklahoma.

With the Lysfjord's warning, the crowd scattered, said Lt. Kenneth Peay, the Utah Highway Patrol commander in Utah County. Two fellow truckers were helping Lysfjord and Stewart back to their own rigs, about a half-mile past the wreck, when the cargo blew.

The blast tore out a crater - 30 feet deep by 70 feet across - in the road, took chunks out of the canyon wall, set more than a dozen brush fires and damaged a Union Pacific rail line. At least six people were injured in the 1:54 p.m. explosion, one critically, said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Royce.

Several of the injured were transported by ambulance or airlifted to area hospitals, Peay said.

Some victims took themselves to the hospital, so it was unclear exactly how many people were injured and where they were treated.

Janet Frank, spokeswoman for Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, said three people had been admitted. Two suffered critical injuries and a third person was in satisfactory condition. Medical staff later upgraded the condition of the critical patients to fair. Lysfjord was one of those initially critical patients, but his condition was later upgraded. He described his injuries as cuts and bruises, but was staying the night at the medical center for observation.

Four to five people, including Stewart, were also taken to University Hospital in Salt Lake City, said spokesman Chris Nelson.

The R&R truck was eastbound on U.S. Highway 6 and took a curve too fast, Peay said. It rolled onto its right side and slid down the road, ripping open the truck, including part of its fuel tank, and started a small fire, the lieutenant said.

The explosion blew the truck 100 feet up the rock cliff and it slid back down onto the road. All that was identifiable hours later were the engine and the frame.

Spanish Fork firefighter Red Leifson said Lysfjord was a hero. "If he hadn't warned people [about the explosives], a lot of people could have died."

As it was, people in eight eastbound vehicles were injured in the explosion.

"Some couldn't hear. Their ears were ringing," said UHP Trooper Jay Przybyla. "Others felt like they might have internal injuries."

But it could have been much worse. "Everyone here was just extremely lucky," he said.

Two men who were in a Dodge Ram about 150 yards from the truck when it exploded checked themselves into the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center for hearing damage.

Their friend, Mike Empey, said the men saw the tractor-trailer come around the corner, cross both lanes of traffic and tip onto its side. They said they saw the truck burst into flames about "40-feet" high, but it didn't immediately explode. People were able to return to their cars and begin backing away before the explosion, which smashed in the windshield of their Dodge Ram and flattened the roof.

The Utah County bomb squad arrived on the scene within 40 minutes and searched for unexploded ordnance. Sgt. Shaun Bufton said they found a dozen or more cast boosters around the road and track. He said the squad will explode them, but he wasn't sure where.

The blast ignited several small fires on the south side of Spanish Fork Canyon and knocked out phone service in the towns of Colton, Clear Creek and Schofield.

Firefighters were on the scene monitoring the situation Wednesday evening, and a helicopter was dropping water or fire retardant on the blazes.

The explosion also badly damaged the Union Pacific railroad tracks that run parallel to Highway 6 through the canyon. Union Pacific repair crews were on the scene Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, train traffic, including Amtrak, is stalled. Vernae Graham, an Amtrak spokesman in Oakland, Calif., said the westbound California Zephyr, which arrived in Grand Junction, Colo., around 4:30 p.m., was laid up until the tracks could be repaired.

The eastbound train out of Emeryville, Calif., wasn't due in Salt Lake City until 3:15 this morning.

Amtrak was trying to arrange bus service pending the Union Pacific re-opening, said an agent who declined to give his name. In such situations, Amtrak commonly buses passengers around the accident site, essentially swapping trains, which then turn around and head back where they came from.

Nile Easton, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, said the Department of Public Safety oversees the motor carrier regulations that apply to hazardous materials shipping. He said R&R Trucking has a clean record. "We did [a check] on this company in August 2004 and they were found in good standing," he said.

Easton said it would take two days to repair the road, working around the clock. They planned to start Wednesday at 10 p.m.

As twilight approached, two state legislators came to survey the awesome destruction left behind.

"Incredible," said Sen. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, as she looked at what was left of the tractor-trailer. "It really does look like a bomb went off, she added later.

Said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo: "This looks like Armageddon."

The crash occurred at a place in Spanish Fork Canyon known as Apple Bend, where at least one tractor-trailer crashes each month. "This is a famous spot for it," said Peay. "This is one of the worst spots we've got."

He said a crash like Wednesday's has been UHP's worst nightmare. "I'm surprised it hasn't happened sooner," Peay said.

Lysfjord said he and Stewart had been through the canyon several times before and were aware of the dangerous sections of road.

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Tribune staff writers Patty Henetz, Michael Westley, Jason Bergreen, Mark Eddington, Justin Hill and Todd Hollingshead contributed to this report.

Crash and explosion

* Tractor-trailer, owned by R&R Co., carried 35,500 pounds of explosives called cast boosters that are used in mine exploration.

* The truck was on its way from company in Spanish Fork to Oklahoma when it crashed, causing explosion on U.S. Highway 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon.

* The blast injured at least six people and damaged the highway and Union Pacific rail line.

 

 

 

 

 

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