Wreck on bridge blocks interstate for three hours

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 6, 2000

Vicksburg Fire Department officials gather at the scene of an 18-wheeler accident on the Interstate 20 bridge over the Mississippi River Tuesday. The truck hit the guardrail after blowing a tire, causing its fuel tank to leak diesel and shutting down the interstate for nearly three hours. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

A one-truck wreck in the westbound lanes of Interstate 20 Mississippi River Bridge clogged up traffic for more than three hours Tuesday.

Traffic backed up in the westbound lanes of I-20 as far as the Mississippi Public Service Commission truck scales just west of Bovina, about seven miles east of the bridge.

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The wreck at 2 p.m. involved an empty milk tanker, driven by John Lancaster of Brashear, Texas, which was traveling from Kosciusko to Texas. A tire on the truck blew out, said Sgt. Robert Jackson of the Vicksburg Police Department, causing the truck to slam into the guardrail.

The crash punctured the truck’s fuel tanks, allowing diesel to leak onto the bridge. Traffic stood at a standstill while the remaining fuel was pumped out into 50-gallon tanks before the truck could be moved.

“We were lucky, most of the fuel, engine oil and engine coolant that leaked was confined to that narrow emergency lane next to the right hand lane,” said Fire Chief Kevin Westbrook.

L.W. Callaway III, director of the Warren County Emergency Management Office, said the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality was called to clean up fuel that leaked through storm drains onto the ground under the bridge.

“There wasn’t any chance of it getting into the river,” Callaway said.

Jackson said the tire on the truck blew out just as Lancaster drove the 18-wheeler onto the bridge.

“He had the presence of mind to steer it along the guard rail and keep it out of the other lane,” Jackson said, adding the truck rode down the rail for about 300 feet before stopping.

No injuries were reported and eastbound traffic was not affected by the wreck.

The incident resulted in a renewed call for the old U.S. 80 Bridge to be reopened to traffic.

“This proves we should have the old bridge open,” said William James, a resident of Hunter Heights in Madison Parish, who was visiting in Vicksburg.

The U.S. 80 bridge has been closed to vehicular traffic since September 1998, when county officials said the roadbed was in need of repairs.

A year ago, Warren County residents in a non-binding referendum voted to have the 70-year-old span reopened to cars and light trucks. The other options were to transform it into a pedestrian park and to sell it.

Following the countywide vote, Warren County supervisors voted to reopen the bridge but have delayed further action pending studies of the damage and repairs. Supervisors have also not said if the 18-foot-wide bridge will be opened to one- or two-way traffic.

Sgt. Jackson said he and others dealing with the wreck and spill were pleasantly surprised by how cooperative most drivers were. In spite of that, he said the traffic tangle caused at least three other non-injury wrecks and officers issued tickets to drivers illegally crossing the median and going the wrong way on interstate entrance ramps.

Danny Ezell from Delhi was one of the hundreds of people waiting in traffic while officials worked to clean the spill.

“Oh, this is great,” Ezell said with a smile after an hour and a half.

Ezell and two friends were returning from a day of horseback riding in the Delta National Forest when the wreck stopped them near the Indiana Avenue overpass. For the three men, the biggest concern was possibly being late for dinner.

“We might miss it altogether,” he said.

Local traffic on Clay Street was also congested because of the I-20 shut down as motorists took the East Clay Street exit in hopes of avoiding the traffic jam on the interstate. Others used the shoulder of the road to reach exits and get off the interstate.

J.D. Garrett, an Alabama truck driver with 23 years on the road, was also stuck in the traffic jam near Clay Street. He said the driver of the tanker on the bridge was lucky the wreck was not worse.

“I’ve seen a lot of these,” Garrett said. “But I’ve been lucky and never had a wreck.”

Traffic was also reported tied up on Washington Street as people waited in lines back to the Ameristar Casino parking lot to get onto the interstate.

Officers said it was after 6 p.m. before all the traffic cleared.