State and local crews work quickly, closely to manage bad Bellingham crash

by guest blogger Jamie Holter

There are times when our crews really shine. Thursday was one of those days. At 7:45 a.m.  a truck carrying liquid nitrogen overturned. The pictures were creepy. A low, menacing mist spread silently across all lanes of I-5. No one knew what it was but Washington State Patrol knew enough to tell everyone to stay back.  It didn’t go away. It just kept creeping along.

The news media broadcast our traffic camera pictures. We tweeted them as well. Here’s what happened:
Washington State Patrol reported the crash to our maintenance staff at 7:45 a.m.  It was described as an “all hands on deck” crash, a semi-truck on its side with an unknown substance pouring out. Every maintenance person in western Whatcom County was immediately diverted to the crash site or participating in the crash response. The traffic cameras were turned to the area and we could see the thick mist creeping across both directions of I-5.

We instantly implemented the detour plans we developed for the Vancouver Olympic Games in 2010. These plans were a multi-agency effort.  Our incident response staff has detailed maps on how to detour traffic from every interchange in Whatcom County onto city streets and county roads and take them back to the freeway again. 

We contacted Bellingham Fire, Bellingham Police, and Bellingham Public Works to help us with I-5 traffic even as they were preparing their own detours.   At that point our primary concern was life safety.  Bellingham Fire advised us not to allow traffic to drive through the plume.  Our staff at both collision scenes turned traffic around and backed the trapped drivers out of the incident scene.  We contacted Cascades Communications, the radio group which controls most of the Bellingham and nearby radio stations, to get the word out locally.

City and state teams worked seamlessly to close all southbound and northbound ramps and lanes in the area. By 7:57 a.m., nearly everything was sealed off.  Emergency personnel were all advised to stay back at least 300 feet. Washington State Patrol did not allow anyone to drive or walk through the mist.

It was raining and drivers were distracted by the scene which contributed to other fender benders.  A third major collision occurred, also on northbound I-5 near the overturned tanker.  A semi-truck jackknifed and collided with a boom truck which also required our staff to respond.

Supervisor Ric Willand, one of the first on the tanker scene, described it as, “a 2-to-3 inch hole in the tanker that sent a foggy cloud from the sound wall all across the freeway to the trees and the hotel beyond.”
It wasn’t until 8:36 a.m. that we got the all clear to go near the tanker.  There was no risk of explosion.
The tanker was in pieces. Its diesel tanks were leaking.  The second semi-truck on southbound I-5 about a mile away, was also on its side and leaking fuel from its saddle tanks.  Then, of course, there was that third crash. The clean up was a two-stage process: upright and haul away the crumbled semi-truck and tanker truck – again, two crash scenes a mile apart - then clean the road.

We pumped more than 50 gallons of fuel from the tanker truck. We used more than 30 bags of floor dry and one ton of sand to sop up the spilled fuel. All of this was made more difficult by the fact that the liquid nitrogen had frozen solid in several areas.

The State Street interchange was congested as all the traffic from the freeway was funneled into the off ramp and the city street system.  We attempted to keep traffic moving around Bellingham by changing signal timing and working directly with engineering staff from the City of Bellingham.

The clean-up crews worked quickly and all southbound lanes were open by 9:48 a.m. and all northbound lanes were open by 12:06 p.m.