A semi pulling a tank trailer hit a guardrail on the Kansas Turnpike south of Wichita on Saturday afternoon, shot down an embankment, caught fire and exploded minutes later, killing a man and woman from Oklahoma, authorities with the Kansas Highway Patrol said.
At least one motorist started toward the truck to help, but it was too late. The truck was engulfed in flames about a mile north of the Belle Plaine service area, said Kansas Highway Patrol Master Trooper Joel Powers, the first emergency responder to arrive. The crash occurred around 3:30 p.m.
The man was driving, and the female passenger was a co-driver, Powers said. Their identities were not released.
The truck caught fire about 75 yards east of the northbound lanes. Realizing that the truck and tanker could explode, another trooper held back northbound traffic for a time. The truck exploded about 10 minutes after he arrived, Powers said at the scene.
“When it blew, it was a pretty good shock wave,” he said. The force sent large sheets of metal back toward the highway.
Powers said a woman in a vehicle behind the truck saw it strike the bridge guardrail, then lose control. Why the truck hit the guardrail is unknown.
At first officials on scene were unable to confirm a passenger was in the truck because of the severe fire damage. But Kansas Highway Patrol Capt. Joe Bott said by phone Saturday evening that authorities who opened the cab around 6 p.m. found two dead.
Just north of the guardrail, skid marks led across the shoulder and down the embankment. In a flat spot beyond the bottom of the embankment, the truck smashed through a fence and tree line and ended up in a corn field. The trailer was upright. The cab was on its top or side.
Powers said he knew something was wrong when he saw smoke when he was at the Belle Plaine service area. He immediately headed to the crash, but the truck was already in flames. He grabbed a fire extinguisher but quickly realized it was no use. He was at the scene about two minutes after the crash.
When he arrived, Powers said, lots of people had stopped. The fire kept them all well back.
Both northbound lanes were open by around 5:30 p.m.