BOTETOURT COUNTY, Va. – Route 220 in both directions remains indefinetely closed just north of Fincastle in Botetourt County after a major tanker crash and fire that resulted from it Wednesday morning. Emergency crews are still on the scene working to figure it all out and the entire situation will likely be one for the history books.
It will be days before they get the southbound lanes re-opened, and weeks before the northbound lanes, which suffered the brunt of the damage and physically no longer exist, are back to normal too. The Virginia Department of Transportation said its top brains don't even know exactly how long it will take because the situation is complex. As of right now, they are still just trying to stop the bleed.
The crash happened in 2700 block of Route 220, also known in that area as Botetourt Road, and has been closed since it happened. Just before 6:30 a.m., the fuel tanker truck ran off the road and overturned because the driver was trying to avoid hitting a deer. It's unclear what impact, if any, the winter weather had on the crash.
The trailer ruptured and, within moments, the entire tanker was ignited. The estimated 8,500 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel began burning, flowing through a drainage ditch and into an undeground pipe. Little remains of the tractor trailer and no more fuel is leaking.
The driver, Stuart resident James Willard Yarbrough, was able to get out of the truck before it caught fire, and was not hurt. He is charged with reckless driving. No homes or buildings were damaged in the fire.
Burning fuel flowed like lava through that drainage ditch which funnelled it into the pipe that carries a local creek, which superheated and caused the culvert to collapse under the northbound side of the roadway leaving a massive cavity beneath the road.
The pipe runs entirely underground from the outer edge of either side of the highway, spanning 200 feet. The section under the median and the northbound lanes was completely incinerated as the fuel flowed downstream with gravity.
"We're going to have to replace 110 feet of pipe on the northbound lanes, we don't know if we can get that pipe, we don't have pipe of this type that's just ready to go," VDOT spokesman Jason Bond said.
The section under the southbound lanes is upstream from where the burning fuel entered the pipe, but the intense heat damaged the adjacent pipe upstream too. So despite looking safe from above ground, there is structural damage undeground below the southbound lanes as well which means it's not safe.
Re-opening the southbound lanes is priority number one for crews, but weather is making it difficult. The pipe section under the southbound lanes can be repaired and made safe for traffic while work continues on the other side, which is the eventual goal. That is expected to take a few days to figure it out.
Jason Bond/Virginia Department of Transportation Spokesman: "We were hoping to get it done today or possibly tomorrow but all this weather we're having, there is water feeding through that pipe," Bond said.
The Virginia Department of Transportation has set up a detour around the area for the time being. Eventually, whent he southbound side is re-opened, both directions of traffic will split the two lanes on the southbound side.
People who live in the area were alerted via the reverse 911 emergency system. No one was evacuated.
There is a major environmental aspect to this crash as well as the nearly ever last drop of fuel in the tanker leaked out. Fire officials said 8,500 gallons of diesel and gasoline spilled and they've warned people not to allow livestock to drink from Catawba Creek until hazardous materials crews have confirmed that it is safe to do so. The detours had to be pushed back even farther away from the crash scene to allow enviornmental crews more space to do their work.