Bearings likely cause of I-35 fire

Published 10:30 am Friday, May 7, 2010

Almost a week after fear of an arsenic cloud from a double semitrailer on Interstate 35 prompted authorities to evacuate several hundred homes in southern Albert Lea, emergency responders have reviewed the incident to figure out where they succeeded in response and how they can improve on future emergencies.

“It was an excellent, excellent chance for everyone in the county to use all avenues of our emergency management plan,” said Albert Lea Township Fire Chief Chuck Karl, who was the lead on the incident. “We had never done it live, but this was live.” 

Last Saturday, just after 10:20 p.m., authorities received a call that a Yellow Roadway semi hauling out of the Twin Cities metro area had caught fire in the dolly wheel area between the two trailers. The semi was about a half mile south of Exit 8 on I-35. 

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According to the Minnesota State Patrol, the driver was John Mascher, and the truck was carrying 4,240 pounds of arsenic in its first trailer and 212 pounds of small arms primer in the second trailer. 

Karl said the fire was caused by either a brake hang-up or bearing failure. He assumed it was a bearing failure because when this happens the bearing would get very hot and start the tire on fire. Eventually, the second trailer carrying the small arms primer caught fire, but the first trailer with the arsenic did not. 

There was no release or spill of the poisonous chemical. 

Authorities began an evacuation of nearby homes as a precautionary measure because they feared the rear trailer carrying the ammunition would explode and catch the other trailer with the arsenic on fire.

Residents return home following semi fire on I-35

Homes south of South Shore Drive and east of South Margaretha Avenue were evacuated, along with homes on those streets and on Larson Avenue. 

Arsenic, often used in the preservation of wood, is also used in pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. It is a powerful poison that can be toxic. 

Mascher sustained some burns when he was trying to disconnect the trailers and was treated at the scene for his injuries, Karl said.

Albert Lea Fire Capt. Mark Roche, who is also the Freeborn County Emergency Management director, said nearly every fire department within the county responded, along with emergency personnel, a hazardous materials crew, Albert Lea police, Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office deputies, the State Patrol and even officials from Mower County. 

Some assisted in the evacuation process, some in staging at City Arena and others at the actual scene of the trailer, Roche said. The Freeborn County chapter of the American Red Cross, the Albert Lea Salvation Army, the Albert Lea Bus Company and the Albert Lea Parks and Recreation Department also assisted in the evacuation.

“Concerning what we had and what was done, I thought it went relatively good,” he said. “This is one of those situations you can’t really plan for. That’s why when we train in the county you train all hazards.” 

Roche said the residents in Albert Lea were understanding in participating in the evacuation. 

“That’s a good compliment for the people of the area who were involved and also the responding public safety agencies,” he added. 

He encouraged people to be prepared for emergencies such as this and to have their prescriptions and other necessities easily accessible. 

“People need to plan that this may happen, whether it’s a tornado or an evacuation,” Roche said. “It can happen to us where we may need to get up and leave on a very, very short notice.”

He said the majority of the fire was extinguished by shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday, around the same time residents were allowed to go back to their homes. 

But the incident didn’t close until later. Officials had to unload the contents of the burning trailer, which were on pallets, and put them into a new trailer. 

Karl said around 1 a.m. northbound I-35 reopened, and by 2 a.m. one southbound lane was opened. By 5 a.m. all lanes of traffic on the interstate were open.

While the bomb squad was initially called to the scene, their assistance was later canceled. 

Roche and Karl said the contents of the double trailer were being transported legally in accordance with Minnesota Department of Transportation guidelines. The driver also had no violations. 

“As far as carrying that type of mixed load, that’s very, very common,” Karl said. “Everything that the truck company did was totally what the transportation department requires.” 

“People would be real surprised as to what’s going up and down our interstate,” Roche added. 

During the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, Freeborn County Sheriff Mark Harig said at any time in the county there could be dangerous items being hauled on the roads. He mentioned nuclear waste, missiles and chemicals.

“An incident like this could happen anywhere at any time,” Harig said. “We never know what we’re dealing with until we get to the truck.”

He said he is looking forward to all responders having their own radios and channels because of the amount of radio traffic the night of the incident.