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By CHIP OSOWSKI
News Channel 8
ST. PETERSBURG - The highway patrol says the driver of a tanker that exploded on Interstate 375 last night simply lost control. The truck’s load shifted and the truck flipped, sparking a mammoth blaze that engulfed both the elevated highway and the ground below.
Many who live nearby heard the crash.
“I was standing right here on the porch and it was kind of odd hearing the sound,” explained Mike Zomer. “There was scraping and sparks flying and all of a sudden the whole thing just went ballistic.”
The Florida Department of Transportation has closed the southbound exit of I-375 (exit 23A) until further notice, including for this weekend’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Investigators say the truck driver never had a chance. He, or she, died at the scene.
Fuel from the truck spilled over the interstate and ignited several pieces of city equipment stored in a lot below.
“We lost probably about 8 to 10 pieces of equipment in our yard. The accident actually took place right above our equipment yard in the downtown area,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.
Some gas also entered the city’s storm sewer system, causing several smaller explosions, which sent several manholes soaring into the air.
One hit a city police officer injuring him.
It took dozens of firefighters and emergency workers from across the county to put the fire out.
Now engineers have to figure out what, if any damage, the fire did to this roadway and how long it will take to fix it.
Investigators have not identified the victim. They say the fire burned so intensely they can’t even tell what company owned the truck.
They say they’re hoping a trucking company will call them to report a missing truck and that will help them identify the victim.
“The remains of the burned tanker will remain on scene until the roadway has been declared safe for tow trucks to remove the tanker,” said Highway Patrol spokesman Larry Coggins in a statement.
Interstate 75 remains open and is the best route for motorists traveling to the downtown waterfront race track, the DOT said. Motorists traveling north on I-275 will also be able to exit on I-375, exit 23A.
“The city expresses sympathy for the truck driver and the driver’s family for the tragic loss of life last night,” said Mayor Baker in a prepared statement. “We have made slight adjustments in the city’s traffic plan for the weekend and remain confident that motorists will be accommodated for the Grand Prix and other events. Please allow a little extra time if coming to the race, and familiarize yourself with some of these alternative routes.”
Stay tuned to TBO.com for more updates.