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Suicidal driver blows up rig in Marengo

Suicidal driver blows up rig in Marengo
Suicidal driver blows up rig in Marengo
Andy Stinchfield, left, of the Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management, and Crawford County Deputy Sheriff Andy Beals look at what's left of a truck that exploded and burned in Marengo Thursday night, forcing the evacuation of the town. (Photo by Wade Bell)

Marengo may be ready to wipe the month of May off the calendar.
Just days before the first anniversary of a tornado that left the town in ruins, Donald W. Rich, 47, of Arnold, Mo., Thursday night is believed to have deliberately blown up the tractor-trailer he was driving on the west side of town near the railroad crossing on S.R. 66.
The explosion and resulting smoke plume from chemicals burning in the box-type trailer forced an evacuation and left the town in the dark.
The incident began earlier that evening when the Indiana State Police received a call from Colonial Freight Trucking Co. in St. Louis. ISP Trooper Jeff Smith was told that Rich was threatening suicide at a rest area on Interstate 64 near Dale. A half-hour later, Smith reached Rich on his cell phone and tried to talk him down.
‘Trooper Smith advised me (Rich) was threatening on the phone, very uncooperative and ended up hanging up on the trooper after a 10- or 15-minute conversation,’ ISP Senior Trooper Rob Priest said.
Priest said the truck had a GPS tracking system, but Rich had unplugged it, forcing the ISP to issue an all-points bulletin to search for the truck. Rich finally turned onto S.R. 66 at Carefree and drove north toward Marengo. About 10 miles later, Rich crashed his truck into an embankment just north of the crossing on the town’s outskirts.
Marengo Marshal John Baird was the first officer to arrive. What happened next left officials perplexed.
Baird asked him who he was. ‘He was mumbling something you couldn’t understand. I said, ‘Who’s the driver of the truck?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I am, but it’s too late now.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He looked down and there was a fire. After he had run the truck into the bank, he took his cigarette lighter and set it on fire.
‘When I was trying to get the information from him,’ Baird said, ‘the truck started blowing up. There was fire and explosions all over the place, from one end to the other. Me and the fireman that was there, we started running south to get away from it, and this guy took off north. After that, we just tried to get everybody away from the truck.’
Phil Jones was the Marengo-Liberty firefighter with Baird. Jones said flames went in all directions.
‘The fire was probably 30 feet in the air coming off the truck, then blew across the road all the way over to the tracks,’ he said. ‘I was a hundred yards from it, then I saw a utility pole burning down. There were lines running right beside me, and I said, ‘We’re too close.’
‘The fire was so intense (that) fuel was running down the road 60 or 70 feet from the truck. I saw a couple of 55-gallon drums roll across the road. That’s when I Ieft.’
Police said the manifest provided by Colonial showed the truck was loaded with 39,000 pounds of cargo that included paints, solvents and organic peroxide, all flammable materials. Containers ranged from spray cans to five-gallon buckets to 55-gallon metal drums. The organic peroxide was perhaps the biggest threat, because it’s used in producing polymers, as well as high explosives.
The explosion cut electric power to the town. Because the contents of the trailer were unknown at the time, a quick decision was made to evacuate as many people within a half-mile radius as possible.
‘We tried to get as much information as to what was on the truck so we would know exactly what we were dealing with,’ said Marengo firefighter Mark Hollen.
Included in that area was the Lincoln Hills Development Corp.’s Marengo Elderly Housing Complex. A temporary shelter was set up at Hillview Christian Church, where at least 150 people were transported, according to a Red Cross official. Others stayed with friends and relatives.
‘The evacuation process went real good,’ said Marengo Assistant Fire Chief Shawn Scott. ‘We had one lady that wouldn’t leave, because she wanted to take her cat. Once we got her cat, we put her in the ambulance and she left.’
All four county fire departments plus Ramsey VFD, Crawford County EMS and Salem Fire Dept. helped with the evacuation. Officials from Chemtrec and the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office also responded. The Marengo Fire Station became the command center.
During the evacuation, a search for the truck’s driver was in progress. Rich was apprehended by police near Cox Apartments on the other side of the small town. His clothing was covered with chemicals, making necessary a make-shift decontamination unit, where Rich and the five police officers who handled him were cleansed. They were decontaminated a second time at Harrison County Hospital in Corydon, but no one was injured by the exposure.
Priest said Rich’s actions were highly unusual and the Missouri driver will face several charges, including arson. The incident is still under investigation.
‘We’re dealing with an individual who wasn’t in their right state of mind,’ Priest said. ‘We don’t know what set him off, what pushed him to the point where he crashed a vehicle, especially one as large as this with the chemicals involved, and ignited it.’
Besides arson, Priest said there might be more charges. ‘Indiana has got statutes that deal with terrorism and things like this. This guy made terroristic threats, and the statutes would apply in that situation,’ he said.
Cleanup of the crash site began Friday morning. The town was open for business as usual, even though S.R. 66 was closed from about two miles south of the railroad crossing to about a quarter-mile east of the scene. No contamination was found in the nearby creek, and Marengo Elementary School was open, with electricity having been restored to all except the west end of town.
The incident occurred just days before the anniversary of the May 30, 2004, tornado, and left some people in a daze.
‘I think what the town of Marengo needs to do is eliminate May and we’ll get along better,’ Baird said. ‘It’s not something you deal with every day, and I’m thankful for that. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.’