A tanker truck filled with diesel fuel crashed through a guard rail Saturday on Corvair Curve, burst into flames and plummeted more than 100 feet into a ravine, dumping nearly 7,500 gallons of fuel into a creek bed.
The driver of the truck, 33-year-old Robert Lynn Coleman of Glendale, jumped out of the flaming truck as it plunged down the embankment along Highway 87 just south of Payson.
The truck broke apart as it tumbled down the hill, shooting flames into the night sky, said Department of Public Safety officer Doc Dimbat, who was called to the scene shortly before 11 p.m.
"The flames were many feet in the air," he said. "There was a huge ball of fire" where the truck landed.
One of Coleman's lungs collapsed, he was burned and he broke a vertebrae, leg and wrist in the accident, but he was able to climb back to the shoulder of the highway and flag down help.
He was later taken to the Maricopa County Burn Unit by Life Rescue helicopter.
Coleman, who was driving a truck owned by Pro Petroleum of Phoenix, lost control of the rig and the truck bounced off the guard rail along the Beeline's "notoriously dangerous" Corvair Curve, Dimbat said. The truck tipped over on its left side, crashed through the guard rail, caught fire, and plunged 100 feet into the ravine below.
And since diesel fuel is combustible and not flammable -- more like oil than gasoline -- most of the spilled fuel did not burn, DPS Sgt. John Whetten said.
"The tanker ruptured before it went through the guard rail," Dimbat said, "so the road was saturated with diesel fuel."
That portion of the spill was promptly cleaned up by the Payson Fire Department with sand and other absorbent materials.
More problematic was the rest of the unburned fuel, which flowed into the dry creek bed where it could threaten groundwater.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is spearheading a cleanup of the fuel spill with assistance from contractors hired by the tanker's owners, Whetten said.
"Very simply, the plan is to dig up the contaminated soil and replace it with fresh, clean soil," DPS Public Information Officer Andy Vidari said.
At press time, ADEQ officials were unavailable for comment. Dimbat said, however, that it was his understanding that the cleanup would take about one and a half weeks.
Although the accident is still under investigation, preliminary DPS information suggests it was caused by driver inattention, Whetten said.