Crash injures man, sparks gas pump fire

Posted June 07, 2010, at 11:49 a.m.

HARRINGTON, Maine — A medical supply delivery truck crashed into a gas pump at the Circle K station on Route 1 Monday morning, setting off several explosions that set fire to the vehicle and the pump.

Four men worked together to pull the driver, Gardiner Crabtree, 62, who works for Coastal Med Tech in Ellsworth, from the burning vehicle. Crabtree suffered burns in the accident and was reported to be in critical condition at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor late Monday afternoon.

Crabtree had been parked in the Circle K parking lot at about 10:30 a.m. Monday when his truck shot forward and struck a vehicle parked at the pumps, according to Sgt. Tim Tabbutt of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department. Raymonde Houde, no age or address available, had just gotten out of her vehicle to pump gas and just missed being hit by the truck. Her vehicle lurched forward and struck a second vehicle driven by Sheena Dowling of East Machias.

Houde jumped back in her vehicle and drove it away from the fire. Neither she nor the three passengers in her vehicle were injured, Tabbutt said.

The accident set off several small explosions that set fire to the pumps and the truck. Firefighters feared that the blaze might ignite the liquid oxygen inside the delivery vehicle.

Dave McLaughlin, who owns McLaughlin’s Garage next to the Circle K site, said he heard a bang and thought the Dumpster was being changed at the gas station. When he stepped out of his garage, he said he saw the fire.

“All I could see was fire and smoke just boiling out from under the canopy there,” McLaughlin said.

Tabbutt said four good Samaritans, Terry Grant, Mark Schoppee, Branden Lovejoy and Nicholas Graham, rushed to the burning vehicle to rescue Crabtree. A worker from the Circle K store, Raelea Merchant, rushed to the scene with a fire extinguisher.

“She used a fire extinguisher while they tried to get him out,” Tabbutt said.

McLaughlin said he saw two of the rescuers, Schoppee and Grant, rush to the burning truck.

“They couldn’t get him out,” he said. “I heard Mark and Terry screaming to just ‘rip him out of there somehow.’”

Lovejoy and Graham were in the convenience store when the accident happened. Lovejoy said he heard a bang.

“The guy had run into the fuel pumps and it immediately exploded,” he said.

Lovejoy ran out and he and his buddies tried to get Crabtree out of the vehicle.

They managed to get the door of the vehicle open. Lovejoy said he thought Terry Grant cut Crabtree’s seat belt off him. The flames encircled the truck.

“There were two big explosions,” he said. “He was tangled up in the steering wheel. Mark grabbed his belt, I grabbed his feet, and Nick got his hands and we lugged him out to the side.”

Lovejoy said he thought about the danger afterward, especially after he learned that the explosive liquid oxygen was in the truck. But he said he didn’t think about that while it was happening.

“There was fire all around him, but you could see he was still alive,” he said. “We just wanted to get him out. I guess I’d want him or someone to do the same for me.”

The heavy black smoke forced rescuers to move Crabtree farther away from the pumps.

Crabtree was taken to Down East Community Hospital in Machias and later taken by LifeFlight helicopter to EMMC in Bangor.

Grant and Merchant both suffered from smoke inhalation. They were taken to DECH where they were being kept overnight for observation, Tabbutt said.

The staff at the Circle K station immediately shut down the gas pumps, according to Kathy Brown, market manager for Circle K.

“They did everything right,” she said.

They were evacuated from the building.

According to Harrington Fire Chief David Baldwin, the station’s overhead fire suppression system was activated automatically. That and quick action by a Harrington firefighter, who quickly drenched the blaze using a deck gun from a firetruck, helped to keep the fire at bay until crews could get suited up properly to attack the fire.

“He hit it hard with the deck gun,” Baldwin said. “The truck only has 1,250 gallons of water on it, but it was enough to knock it down.”

Crews used water and foam to control and eventually put out the fire, which took almost an hour.

The smoke from the burning pump and vehicle created toxic fumes, and firefighters had to use the same breathing gear they would when attacking an interior structure fire. The materials in the truck, particularly the liquid oxygen, were a cause of concern, and the damage could have been much worse if they had exploded. As it was, witnesses reported several small explosions that looked “like fireworks” from the truck.

Baldwin praised the combined efforts of the law enforcement, fire, ambulance and emergency management crews that responded to the call.

“We’ve been training together a lot,” Baldwin said. “I was pleased with the performance. There were a lot of different agencies here, and we all worked well together.”

Firefighters from Columbia, Columbia Falls, Addison, Cherryfield and Milbridge went to the scene. Jonesport firefighters stood by. In addition to officers from the sheriff’s office, officers from the state police, Milbridge police, forest rangers and game wardens came to help. The Washington County Emergency Management Agency set up a central command unit to be ready in the event the fire got out of hand, Baldwin said.

A crew from Coastal Med Tech removed materials from the damaged truck, which was towed next door to McLaughlin’s Garage. The company removed all of the materials from the truck except for the large tank of liquid oxygen. The contents of that large tank still were being drained from the tank Monday afternoon.

Contractors for Circle K were at the scene Monday afternoon to assess the damage to the station. Brown declined to put a value on the damaged pump and said she was unsure when it would be back in service. She did say the company expected to have the rest of the pumps and the convenience store open for business by Monday evening.