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A Hickory man safely escaped his tractor-trailer truck after it hit an Interstate 40 guardrail and burst into flames.
The Wednesday morning accident stopped interstate traffic traveling in both directions, and it was one of two serious accidents in Catawba and Iredell counties during the morning.
"I heard something pop, and it pulled like hell to the left," said Ed Banghart, a Salem National Leasing driver who was transporting truck parts from Hickory to Statesville. "It was on fire before I stopped."
N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper R.E. Sales said Banghart was traveling east on I-40 between mile marker 135 and 136 about 7:20 a.m. when he swerved into the center median and struck a metal barrier.
"It ruptured one of the fuel tanks," Sales said.
As the truck skidded to a stop along almost 700 feet of the metal guardrail, sparks ignited leaking fuel and a fire started, said Claremont Fire Chief Gary Sigmon.
When firefighters from Claremont and Catawba fire departments arrived at the scene, the cab was "fully engulfed in flames," he said.
"As we were pulling up on the scene, a second fuel tank exploded," Sigmon said.
Banghart said that at first, he tried to fight the fire.
"I tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher," he said, "but I just left it. I backed away from it. There was nothing I could do."
The truck was carrying about 150 gallons of diesel fuel at the time of the wreck, but Banghart was not hurt. No other vehicles were involved, even though Banghart said he was surrounded by traffic when the truck swerved into the median.
This was the first time Banghart has been involved in an accident like this, the driver said.
"And I don't want to do it again," he said.
In addition to Claremont and Catawba fire departments responding to the scene, Oxford and Conover fire departments provided mutual aid.
Firefighters used water and foam to extinguish the blaze and contain additional fuel spill, Sigmon said.
After the accident, both directions of I-40 were closed, and westbound traffic was detoured at Exit 138, and diverted along U.S. 70. Highway Patrol, Catawba and Claremont police provided traffic control along alternate routes, before both interstate lanes fully reopened at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Highway Patrol said the cause of the accident is still under investigation.
The wreck during the Wednesday commute came after a fatal wreck on I-40 in Statesville about 12:30 a.m. Ronnie Greer, of Valdese, died after N.C. Highway Patrol said he wrecked his tractor-trailer into a crash barrier truck that was part of a construction crew working on I-40.
Greer's truck caught fire after the collision. The driver of the barrier truck was transported to an area hospital. Greer was traveling from Greensboro to Hickory when the crash occurred.