CAMDEN -- A truck driver hauling a load of fertilizer chemicals was killed Wednesday morning near Camden when the truck's wheels caught fire and ignited the load, setting off an explosion that was heard for miles and led to the evacuation of homes within a 1-mile radius of the blast, authorities said.
The explosion occurred on U.S. 278, about 10 miles west of Camden and about a mile and a half from Arkansas 57.
The truck that Randall McDougal, 63, of Calion was driving was hauling ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible chemical compound, from El Dorado to Texarkana when he called 911 at 6:38 a.m. to report a tire fire, according to Jason Dickenson, chief deputy with the Ouachita County sheriff's office.
Just after 7 a.m., the tractor-trailer rig exploded, killing McDougal and injuring three first-responders, Dickenson said.
Officials have not determined what caused the truck's tires to catch fire, said Melody Daniel, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.
The agency said McDougal was hauling the load for Blann Tractor Co., which is headquartered in Hampton in Calhoun County. Contacted by telephone Wednesday afternoon, a person at Blann Tractor Co. who declined to give her name said the company had no comment regarding the blast, citing advice from legal counsel.
McDougal called 911 after he noticed smoke coming from the truck and tried to extinguish the blaze himself, officials said. Witnesses said they saw McDougal near the truck before the explosion, Arkansas State Police said.
The body has been sent to the state Crime Laboratory, authorities said.
Jill Cross, McDougal's daughter-in-law, lives in Camden and arrived at the scene shortly after the explosion.
"We're not sure if a tire caught on fire or if the brakes glazed over and heated up, but whatever it was caused the fire," said Cross, who gathered with other family members on the side of the road just over a mile from the site. "He called the Fire Department, and when they got there he told them if any of that diesel or if the fire got into the trailer, the ammonium nitrate was going to blow up.
"All we know after that is that the Fire Department folks said he walked back to his truck and opened the door, and when he opened it the truck blew up."
Camden Fire Chief Robert Medford and two other firefighters received minor injuries in the blast. All three were taken to a hospital to be checked out, Medford said, and all three were back at work within a couple of hours.
Medford said it appeared that McDougal had exhausted his fire extinguisher trying to put out the fire.
"When we got there, the back one-quarter of the trailer was on fire," he said. "We didn't have enough water to put out the fire, so we had to pull back."
Medford said when ammonium nitrate burns, it generates oxygen as it decomposes, which causes the fire to increase in intensity. He said the way to fight an ammonium nitrate fire is to flood the material with as much water as possible to reduce the temperature of the burning material.Gallery: Fertilizer truck explosion in southern Arkansas
"To put water on it can make the situation worse, especially if you can't put what the haz-mat procedures manual calls 'copious' amounts of water," Medford said. "We only had 1,000 gallons of water on hand, which was not enough to fight that fire, so we made the decision at that point that we needed to pull back and let it burn."
Medford said he and the other firefighters were walking back to their trucks when the trailer blew up. He said McDougal had walked back toward the truck just before the explosion occurred.
"I only found out later from one of the deputies that when we were trying to account for everybody on the scene that he was reaching for the door of his truck when it exploded," Medford said.
Medford said neither he nor his firefighters have the authority to restrain someone in such a situation.
"We can suggest -- strongly suggest -- that you don't do something, but ultimately it's your decision," Medford said. "Being a haz-mat truck driver, he should have known the dangers that existed for that material, especially if he was going to haul it. I assume that he did, and I assume that he knew the chance he was taking."
The tops of the surrounding pine trees were left bare from the force of the blast, which created a crater that stretched across the roadway.
The concussion from the blast also took out the windshield of a firetruck and a Camden Fairview School District bus, according to Ron Nash, the assistant chief for the Camden Fire Department.
The bus driver was attempting to turn the bus around when the explosion occurred, Camden Fairview Superintendent Mark Keith said. No children were aboard, and the driver was uninjured.
"It looks like a bomb went off," Medford said.
Ouachita County's County Judge Robert McAdoo said the blast was felt all over Camden, and he'd heard reports that the blast was heard and felt as far away as 75 miles.
The blast even registered on the Arkansas Geological Survey's system that is used to track earthquakes, showing a spike at a nearby recording station that tracks such quakes.
"It was a significant blast. There's no doubt about it," said Assistant State Geologist Scott Ausbrooks, adding that it's "not unusual" for large blasts to register as seismic activity.
U.S. 278 was closed Wednesday because of the explosion. Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the state highway department, said crews would work through the night to fill in the crater and repave the roadway.
"Weather permitting, the highway should be reopened to traffic by Thursday evening," Straessle said.
A mile east of the site, McDougal's son, Jason McDougal, stood with other family members holding a vigil as crews worked to clean up the blast site. Some wept, while others talked softly among themselves, awaiting additional details about what had happened.
"It's going to happen to all of us sooner or later," Jason McDougal said. "It's going to happen to all of us, but at least he died doing what he loved."
Then he paused and smiled slightly.
"I don't know," he said softly. "Maybe he didn't still love it after all these years, but he sure liked it a lot."
Information for this article was contributed by Youssef Rddad and Josh Snyder of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
State Desk on 03/28/2019
Print Headline: Deadly truck explosion in south Arkansas heard for miles, leaves crater in highway