A woman headed the wrong way on a one-way street in the St. Roch neighborhood slammed into an 18-wheeler carrying diesel fuel early Friday morning, sending it careening into a nearby sign, where it burst into flames before it exploded minutes later, killing the driver.
Hours after the wreck, police booked Shannon Morris, 33, on a count of negligent homicide.
Morris fled the scene after the collision, which happened about 2:30 a.m. near North Claiborne and Franklin avenues.
She later called police and told them she left “out of fear for her safety,” according to a Police Department statement.
Lt. Anthony Micheu, commander of the NOPD’s Traffic Division, said Morris was given breath and blood tests to determine whether she was intoxicated. It wasn’t clear how much time elapsed between the accident and the tests.
It was not immediately known if Morris had any prior traffic violations in Orleans Parish. A search of Jefferson Parish court records found she was ticketed there in 2002, 2006 and 2008 for minor traffic violations. The most recent charge was for running a red light.
Micheu said Friday’s crash occurred when Morris tried to cross North Claiborne Avenue at Port Street. She was driving her 2004 Acura MDX lakebound on Port, which runs in the opposite direction, and she collided with the tanker.
Authorities said the wreck gave the tanker a flat tire, causing the driver to lose control, after which the tanker crashed into a sign at a nearby gas station parking lot, with the truck’s cab becoming engulfed in flames.
A few minutes later, the tanker exploded, killing the driver. Authorities have not released his name. They said only that he drove for a Metairie-based company.
Authorities and witnesses said there was nothing anyone could do to save him.
Firefighter Michael Williams said firefighters arrived to find the truck’s cab engulfed and had no choice but to let the fire begin to burn itself out while they ordered an evacuation of as many homes and businesses as possible within a 1-mile radius.
“It hadn’t been safe enough for firefighters to approach the vehicle,” Williams told reporters before sunrise, adding that there was immediate concern among firefighters that an explosion could happen because the tanker carried about 8,500 gallons of fuel. “The fire was really, really hot.”
The NOFD was on the scene no more than about two minutes when the explosion happened, he said.
Blaine Chorba, 51, was about a block away when he heard the explosion.
Curious about what happened, he looked outside and could see flames shooting up above homes in the neighborhood. “They must’ve been 100 feet in the air,” Chorba said.
He arrived at the corner moments later to find a horrifying scene: the driver struggling in vain to free himself from his seat belt as flames closed in around him.
“There’s no way you could’ve gotten close to it,” Chorba said of the burning truck. “It’s heartbreaking to not be able to help somebody. … It’s got to be hard on them (the firefighters) to know they couldn’t help.”
Firefighters used foam to contain the fire to the truck and prevent it from spreading to the nearby gasoline pumps, Williams said.
While one person drove himself to the hospital complaining of smoke inhalation, no one else was injured, police said.
“Unfortunate as it may be, it could’ve been a lot worse, being as the gas station was open,” Micheu said.
The evacuation order was lifted about 5:45 a.m., and the fire was declared under control about 6:20 a.m.
Cleanup at the scene continued well into the afternoon, causing traffic on heavily traveled North Claiborne to be rerouted in the meantime.
The truck, hauled away about noon, was nothing more than a mangled and charred frame.
Power remained out in the area for most of the day as Entergy crews worked to replace burned utility poles. Meanwhile, the Department of Public Works tried to replace stoplights that partially melted and to repair parts of the street that buckled in the extreme heat.
While the physical carnage would be gone by afternoon, Chorba said the memories would linger.
“I was horrified because of the guy being alive but not being able to escape,” he said. “That’s gonna stick on me longer than I want it to.”
Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.