A 38-year-old Peoria man was killed Tuesday when the tanker truck he was driving on Highway 87 overturned and exploded, sending a fireball into an oncoming car.
Nader Hanna Mikhail Bechai was driving the gasoline truck northbound on Highway 87 when it overturned and crossed into the southbound lanes, according to the Department of Public of Safety report.
The tanker ruptured spilling gasoline onto the highway, which burst into flames. The truck then left the roadway and rolled into a ravine.
A second vehicle, a sedan traveling southbound, was also destroyed by the fire.
The sedan was driven by Davisson Chuck Slivers, 18, of Ganado, Ariz. He was air-lifted by Native Air to the Maricopa County Burn Center. His passenger, Genice A. Morris, 19, of Mexican Springs, N.M., was uninjured.
The fact that Slivers and Morris survived could largely be due to the heroic efforts of Michael Orozco, 17, a junior at Payson High School.
The young man, a member of the school's track and field team, was on his way to Peoria Sunrise Mountain High School to retrieve a vaulting pole that had mistakenly been taken from the Payson Rotary Invitational Match on May 3. He had permission to leave school at 2 p.m. and was driving his 1993 Thunderbird south on the Beeline when he saw the accident unfold.
"At the very bottom of Slate Creek I saw a tanker driving north and entering the s-turn. I could see the tanker was on fire. The driver slammed into the center divide concrete and started sliding, the cab flipped up and that popped the tanker over on its side.
"There were a couple of cars ahead of me, one was a gold Mercury. The initial explosion sent flames and smoke coming toward us. I slammed on my brakes, but I couldn't see anything ahead of me because of fire and smoke."
Orozco said he put his car in reverse and began backing up away from the flames. He said, the Mercury also started backing up, but ran into the cement divider and the car stalled.
Seeing what had happened, Orozco said he jumped out of his car and started running to the stalled vehicle. Its driver, Slivers, was able to crawl out through the driver's side window, but the woman passenger, Morris, remained in the vehicle.
The PHS student said it was unclear why the woman didn't make an effort to get out of the vehicle, but he said he thinks it was because he later learned the vehicle was filled with valuable documents and belongings.
Seeing the lady trapped in the car, Orozco and the driver rushed to her aid. While the flames surrounded them, the two were able to get the woman out of the car. The student said he thinks it was while they were helping the woman that Slivers was burned. Orozco said he was not injured because Slivers' body shielded him from the flames.
Once Morris was out of the car, the three retreated for the safety of Orozco's car.
"I put it in reverse, backed up and got out of there. It was so hot where we were. It was the scariest thing I have ever done. There were times when I thought I would die," he said.
When Orozco thought he was a safe distance from the flames, he stopped, "I got out and started walking back to where the tanker was. Help wasn't there yet."
Seeing the tanker was still burning and there was a likelihood of more explosions, Orozco said he felt there was no hope for the driver, so he did not move any closer.
The Payson Fire Department was dispatched at about 2:20 p.m., Chief Marty deMasi said.
"Initially we sent only one engine because the call was for a truck fire. Then it was updated as a tanker explosion and a cloud of smoke could be seen from town," he said.
Payson had two engines and a water tender on the scene, with water tenders coming from both the Whispering Pines and Houston Mesa Fire Districts as well. Also assisting were Diamond Star and Pine Strawberry Fire Districts.
The Forest Service from the Mesa District of the Tonto National Forest, along with the Department of Public Safety and Gila County Sheriff's Office were also on hand, deMasi said. Lifestar Ambulance reached the scene before the PFD's first engine arrived and was treating the burn victim, so his personnel, under the direction of Battalion Chief Jimmy Rasmussen, turned their attention to firefighting.
"The Forest Service was working the brush fire, we put out the (second) vehicle and road fire, plus what was left of the truck and guard rails," deMasi said.
Payson personnel were on the scene for about three-and-a-half hours, he said.
"It was a great example of mutual aid," the chief said.
Sgt. Craig Smith and Lt. Adam Shepherd of the Payson office of the Gila County Sheriff's Office were also on the scene. Smith said, "The smoke was so thick you couldn't see the hood of your car."
Smith said by the time he and Shepherd were on the scene about 20 to 30 cars had all stopped because there was no place they could go. They were able to get them turned around and did additional traffic control, he said.
The Beeline was reopened between 8 and 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, Smith said.
Ron Woolwine, director of road maintenance for the Payson office of the Arizona Department of Transportation, said the accident caused quite a lot of damage to the road, though he did not have an estimate on the cost.