NTSB blames driver error in 2009 highway tanker blast

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INDIANAPOLIS - A federal panel says driver error probably caused the crash of a propane tanker that burst into flames, closing parts of Interstate 465 and 69 in Indianapolis.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a report Tuesday into the October 2009 crash on the northeast side of Indianapolis that injured then 73-year-old driver Ronald Tobias and three other people.

The explosion and ensuing fireball has been seared in the memory of northeast side drivers.

"I honestly thought I was dead. I mean, I looked over at my mom, I saw the fire and that was the end of it," said Josh Wilson. "Then we came through the fireball."

"You don't believe what you're seeing. There was just this big, gigantic fireball. I saw the trailer rolling under the bridge," said another witness, Linda Cantwell.

The intense heat melted the front of cars and singed radio and television antennas. Several people were taken to the hospital, including the truck's driver, but no one was injured.

"We were sitting in the car and just reversing and reversing, 'cause this huge ball of fire is just coming back, because this huge ball of fire is coming up and it was just, like, shock," said Anna Beelke.

The National Transportation Safety Board spent nearly two years investigating the crash and held several public hearings.

"Another factor associated with cargo tank vehicle rollovers is some form of driver error," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.

Initial speculation was that the driver was fatigued and possibly fell asleep at the wheel. The Syracuse, Indiana resident is alive, thanks to several men who were working near the accident site.

"We just ran up to him and he was trying to get out and we was trying to pull a broken windshield to get him out and me and another guy drug him out of there before the truck blew up," said rescuer Lonnie Hood.

The NTSB heard thousands of pages of testimony, viewed pictures from the crash site and interviewed the truck driver.

The report says driver Ronald Tobias, 73, made an "excessive and rapid evasive steering maneuver" when he drifted toward a car in another lane, oversteering to the right and then the left before the tanker loaded with 9,000 gallons of propane overturned and exploded.

The report recommends a rollover prevention program for motor carriers and other steps.

Police cited Tobias at the time for unsafe lane movement and driving too fast to avoid a collision.

Read the NTSB report