May 23–ATWATER — A Merced woman described the fiery blast that claimed the life of a tanker- driver as “an ocean of that crashed in waves down the road.”
“I’ve never seen move like that,” said Jeanine Jaroszek, who was buying coffee at Starbucks on Bell Lane around 10:02 a.m. with her twin teenage daughters. “I looked up and there was this like a wall and then we heard the explosion — the first explosion.”
What followed, she said, was chaos as people scrambled out of businesses and fast foot restaurants.
“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 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 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 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 already was on 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 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.
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 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.
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