MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A propane tanker truck crashed into a bridge support and erupted in a fireball Friday, engulfing nearby vehicles and somersaulting its flaming tank 'like a missile' into a house 125 yards away. At least six people were killed, eight were injured and another was missing.
The burning propane damaged three or four other buildings beside the highway and ignited several trees as motorists ran from their cars covered in flames.
'There were people rolling in the street burning. There was one guy lying on one side of the hill just smoking,' said Jed Tennison, a sheet metal worker, who works nearby.
Rescue workers found four bodies on a stretch of highway at the accident site in downtown Memphis, and firefighters pulled two more victims from the charred house, Memphis police spokesman Jim Greenland said.
The victims were too badly charred to be immediately identified, police said.
The eight injured people, including a woman rescued from the house, were taken to Memphis Regional Medical Center. Four of them were in critical condition with burns.
A traffic backup on caused by the accident led to a second fatal wreck about an hour later. Several miles to the south on Interstate 240, a tractor trailor carrying soybean oil skidded into a car and flipped over, killing the truck driver and spilling the oil over the highway, Greenland said.
The deadman was identified as David Bailey, 29, of West Helena, Ark.
The first accident occurred when the driver was steering the propane truck onto a ramp leading from Interstate 40 to I-240 and lost control, slamming into a concerete bridge abutment to an overpass.
'To the best of our knowledge ... the tank ruptured and a fire resulted,' Deputy Fire Chief Frank Baker said. 'This fireball encompassed four or five other vehicles on the interstate.'
'The tank itself, when it ruptured, acted as a missile and traveled an unknown path until it hit an overpass on the interstate,' he said.
After hitting the overpass, the tank flew off the highway, apparently bouncing once before landing on the house on the east side of the interstate.
'I looked out and saw that whole bridge was in flames,' said Steve Sharp, who lives four houses from the house struck by the tank. 'I didn't see the tank hit the house but I heard it.'
Sharp pointed to a hole 4 feet deep and 10 feet wide halfway between the interstate and the house that was destroyed. He said he thought the tank hit the ground and somersaulted another 75 yards to the house, igniting some of the trees along the way.
'I feel lucky man, I tell you,' Sharp said. 'Even 50 feet above the bridge it was all flames.'
A burned-out pickup truck sat on the interstate next to the wreck of the tractor that had pulled the tank. Hugh chunks of concrete littered the interstate and there was a crack in the overpass.
The twisted wreckage of the tractor pulling the tank remained on the roadway, its huge rear axle and two wheels thrown 100 yards up a hill.
'The whole sky just lit up,' said Gaines Tennison, Jed's father, who runs a sheet metal business across the street from the charred house. Baker said the propane tank traveled about 125 yards from the accident site before it hit the house. Flaming propane from the ruptured tank also damaged three or four buildings on the side of the highway, he said.
Fire Capt. R.W. Owen said the accident occurred where a ramp from Interstate 40 and the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, which spans the the Mississippi River, joins I-240. People who work in the area said the ramp has been the site of numerous accidents. The ramp curves sharply as it comes down to the interstate.
Tennison said work has long been planned to make the ramp safer.
'They've been working on (doing something about) that for a year now,' he said. 'There's a truck turning over there about every month.'