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Driver avoids major disaster as truck burns
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Ripon firemen Justin Morris and Captain Neil Green position “hot dog” runoff tubing to contain caustic liquids still draining from a burned out truck trailer to prevent contamination in the storm drains following a spectacular early morning fire. The rear door of the trailer was open when other truckers discovered the blaze, police said. Flames leaped to an estimated 75 feet high as the driver steered his truck away from the trucking facility and its gas pumps. - photo by GLENN KAHL
RIPON — With flames leaping some 75 feet into the early morning sky, a long haul truck driver prevented a possible catastrophe at the Flying J Truck Stop in Ripon Thursday.

Both Ripon Police Chief Richard Bull and Ripon Fire Chief Dennis Bitters confirmed the fire was suspicious in nature - stopping short of calling it arson. Bolt cutters were found near where the rear of the truck had been parked.

Sgt. Don Luthey said his department received a 911 call at 4 a.m. about a truck fire at the truck stop on Jack Tone Road at Highway 99 where an 18-wheeler was reportedly burning in the parking area west of the gas pumps.

The original call stated that the truck was carrying hydrochloric acid.

Luthey said that as he pulled around the corner off of Jack Tone Road he witnessed the semi-truck pulling out of the parking lot taking a service road connection toward the Highway 99 Frontage Road.

He said flames were coming out of the top, sides and rear of the vehicle as the driver attempted to distance himself, and his rig from the fueling area of the trucking facility.  Officers said once the driver felt he was far enough away, he jumped out of his cab and ran back to the patrol units - wearing only his skivvies. They said they quickly wrapped a blanket around him.

“He was a very smart man to get that truck out of there,” Sgt. Luthey said, noting that the driver was uninjured, but a little shaken.

Fearing they were dealing with hydrochloric acid, firemen decided not to put water on the burning load, knowing it would make the situation  worse. They kept the tractor hosed down, and saved the front of the rig - letting the trailer burn out.  They had the fire under control in about 20 minutes, they said.

The actual load amounted to 908 pounds of caustic alkali in the form of sodium hydroxide, and 612 pounds of general household bleach. Firemen said it started to rain some five minutes after they arrived on the scene.

The trailer was completely gutted, with the center of the floor cracking into a “V” configuration with the center of the trailer touching the roadway.   Smoke continued to waft from the remains of the unit more than four hours later in the morning.

A representative from the state agricultural commission’s office showed an early concern about the blooming almonds that took the brunt of the acrid smoke from the fire.

It was first thought that some 15 to 20 rows of almond trees might have to be removed.  However, that expectation was mostly downplayed by the end of the day. A representative told Ripon officials they would monitor the almond trees in the coming days.

Firemen and a private hazardous material cleanup team from the Bay Area were on the scene all day and into the evening hours spending some two shifts at the fire scene.

Randall Jack, 49, had picked up his out of state ACT Trucking load on Monday at Key Chemicals in Grapevine, Texas, with a destination of the Raley’s distribution center in Stockton.  ACT is a Utah firm not to be confused by one of the same name located in Manteca.  

He told officers he had pulled into the Flying J Truck Stop at about 5 p.m. Wednesday night to have dinner, planning to spend the night before driving into Stockton Thursday morning, officers said.

It was about 4 a.m. when other truckers saw his truck was on fire and banged on the side of his sleeper unit telling him to get out.  A box truck carrying a load of wine was parked next to his, and also caught on fire, but was quickly extinguished  by firemen.

Police said the back door of the trailer of his 18-wheeler was reportedly open,  and fire was coming out the rear of the vehicle when the other truckers were trying to wake the driver.   It was at that location that the bolt cutters were later discovered, firemen said.

As others called 911, the trucker started up his vehicle, and steered it successfully out of the truck stop driving it west bound away from the facility to a point about a city block from Highway 99 where flames could be seen by early morning motorists.

Firemen and police alike applauded the efforts of the driver from preventing a fire that could have spread to the many other trucks parked for the night at the facility as well as the danger in the nearby gas pumping operations.