A series of fiery blasts that claimed the life of a tanker-truck driver Tuesday morning sent “an ocean of fire that crashed in waves down the road.”
Jeanine Jaroszek was buying coffee around 10:00 a.m. with her twin teenage daughters at Starbucks on Bell Lane, just off Highway 99.
“I looked up and there was this fire like a wall and then we heard the explosion - the first explosion,” she said. “I’ve never seen fire move like that.”
What followed, she said, was chaos as people scrambled out of businesses and fast food restaurants.
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“There was shouting and people yelling to get out of the building,” Jaroszek said.
She said she heard “at least” two explosions. Video captured by Charlene Goodman, who was at the nearby Walmart, appeared to record at least five explosions.
The driver of a tanker truck that exploded in the area of the Applegate Road and Highway 99 has been found dead, according to Officer Eric Zuniga of the California Highway Patrol.
Mark Lawson, division chief with Calfire-Merced County, said the 2008 Peterbilt truck was carrying about 9,000 gallons of gasoline on a delivery to the Arco gas station on Bell Lane. He said authorities fear the leaking truck may dumped about 1,000 gallons of fuel into the gutter and that fuel may make its way into a drinking-water supply.
The cause of the crash the explosion remains under investigation.
Witnesses told investigators the truck already was on fire around 10:02 a.m. when it left the freeway onto the Bell Lane exit. It reportedly overturned, Zuniga said.
The force of the explosion was felt by numerous people in fast-food restaurants in the area. Multiple cars and trucks sustained heat damaged, and many were described by authorities as “scorched” as a result of the blast, authorities said.
A large plume of thick black smoke could be seen for several miles and was reported as far away as at least Delhi to the north and Merced to the south.
The Highway 99 exit off Bell Lane remains closed.
Numerous businesses in the area were evacuated.
The longer term effects of the crash could wide-ranging, officials said. There are reports of gas leaks in the area of the crash and city leaders fear it could be several days before businesses in the area are allowed to reopen.
Students rehearsing their graduation ceremony Tuesday morning at Atwater Community High School have been sent home. Their graduation ceremony has been postponed for the time being, according to Nathan Quevedo, of the Merced County Office of Education.
“The explosion was so close the students could feel it,” Quevedo said. “The air quality was just so bad out there.”
Fernando Soria, 17, said smoke blacked out the sky. “It sounded like bombs, like from (a video game), boom, boom, boom,” he said.
Atwater Mayor Jim Price said the Panda Express restaurant will likely be closed for at least two days.
Authorities said they need to examine the power grid in that area and also confirm whether the fuel leaked into any water supply.