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1 Dead, 5 Hurt in Fiery Tractor-Trailer Accident

Posted July 27, 2007
Updated July 30, 2007

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— One person was dead and five others were hospitalized Friday after an eight-vehicle tractor-trailer accident that shut down Interstate 40 near Airport Boulevard for nearly five hours.

"The whole front end of the (tractor-trailer) truck was completely gone," said eyewitness Michael Tucker. "(There) wasn't anything to it. Nothing. No tires, no front end of the truck – the trailer was gone. It was just like somebody just took their foot and smashed it."

According to authorities, three vehicles, including the tractor-trailer, were traveling westbound on I-40 shortly before 1 p.m. when a black Dodge pickup collided with a red pickup that collided with the tractor-trailer.

The tractor-trailer then crossed the median into the eastbound lanes, caught fire and exploded, the Highway Patrol said.

A Dodge Neon, carrying a pregnant woman, Hannah Wyatt, and her 8-year-old nephew, Luke Harris, was traveling eastbound when it collided with the rig, was knocked backward and slammed into the guardrail, according to investigators. A Nissan Altima and a silver Dodge pickup truck also collided with the tractor-trailer and were pinned beneath it.

"I didn't know what to think at first," said David Tyree, one of the first witnesses at the scene following the accident. "You couldn't even see the westbound (lanes), because there was so much smoke. Once you got to (the other side), you could see all the cars smashed up under there."

The driver of the silver Dodge pickup, Nemeth F. Sanders, 43, of Bailey, died at the scene, authorities said. He was an employee with the state Division of Forest Resources, the agency confirmed Friday night, and had been an employee since June 2006.

Wyatt, 20, and Harris, both of Statesville, were transported to Duke University Hospital. Wyatt was doing well, and the fetus was fine Saturday morning, Trooper John Collins said.

Harris underwent surgery for skull fractures and neck injuries Saturday morning, authorities said. He also suffered arm and leg injuries, but family members said they are "optimistic," Collins said.

The tractor-trailer's driver, James Hastings, Jr., 54, of Mebane, was taken to the Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. He was still listed in critical condition and being sedated for pain early Saturday afternoon, emergency officials said.

The driver of the red truck, Michael Lassiter, 57, of Burlington, was treated for minor injuries at WakeMed and later released.

Stephen Hargrove, 41, of Raleigh, who escaped from his green Nissan, was treated for minor injuries and released from WakeMed, authorities said.

Peter Cieslak, who was driving a dump truck that also brushed the tractor-trailer, was treated and released from WakeMed.

Robert Klimzcak, 22, of Fuquay-Varina, was driving the black Dodge truck on a suspended license. He was treated for minor injuries at WakeMed and was expected to be released Sunday morning, Collins said.

Charges are pending.

Traffic was backed up for miles along Interstate 40 as crews cleared the scene, and traffic was diverted to alternate routes. Two eastbound lanes remained closed Saturday morning.

Airport Boulevard was also temporarily closed in both directions, creating delays for some airport travelers. There were no reports of any major delays, and airlines tried to accommodate late passengers,

Raleigh-Durham International Airport spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin said.

The Triangle Transit Authority also had to detour routes from Research Triangle Park to Raleigh, and passengers experienced delays, even those on express routes, of up to 90 minutes.

Milan Express, of Milan, Tenn., operated the tractor-trailer. According to the Tennessee Department of Safety, the company has more than 1,000 drivers and more than 2,000 tractor-trailers in its fleet. During the past three months, there have been three fatalities involving Milan vehicles. Milan is approximately midway between Nashville and Memphis.

The 18-wheeler was on its way to make a pick-up and was not carrying any cargo, authorities said.