The accident forced the closure of the highway for more than eight hours and brought a haz-mat response team from Grand Junction.
Bobby Howell, 50, of Nesbit, Miss. – driving for Florida-based Landstar with a load of 14 crated containers of highly flammable liquid methanol – survived the ordeal after somehow losing control of his flatbed semi at about 9:45 a.m. near mile marker 82, roughly 12 miles south of Ouray, causing the truck to roll once before sliding to a stop on the switchback below, coming to rest partially on the driver’s side.
One container came off of the flatbed, but it was a container that remained on the truck that began to slowly leak from the top, prompting the haz-mat response team. The containers had a Level 3 flammability, which forced the Colorado State Patrol to evacuate the area up to 1,000 feet until it could be cleared.
The northbound truck, which was chained up and had just cleared the pass starting its downhill decent into Ouray County, was approaching what Sheriff Dominic “Junior” Mattivi called a horseshoe curve above the Idarado Mine.
“He wasn’t into the corner yet, and just drifted off to the side of the road,” said Mattivi, who was one of the first paged responders on scene along with Ouray Volunteer Fire Chief Adam Kunz. “There’s not much of a shoulder there. There was enough snow that it caught [the truck] and [it] slid down to almost the highway below. It did make one complete roll and slid the rest of the way.”
Howell was brought off Red Mountain Pass in an ambulance and transferred to an awaiting CareFlight helicopter in Ouray, which transported him to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. His injuries were not immediately known, but he was in stable condition as of Thursday evening, according to the State Patrol.
Although OCEMS’s Squad 11 Extrication Team responded, it did not have to cut Howell out of the truck. Rather “they were the horses to help carry him out,” Mattivi said.
Mattivi, who’s also a member of OCEMS and Squad 11, said the entire response “went well.”
“He was very lucky and was in a hard place to get to,” said Mattivi of the three-foot snow bank in which the truck came to rest. “We originally tried to get him out the passenger door and that wasn’t working. They then went to the driver’s side. They had to be very careful, especially anytime there’s suspected head, neck and back injury. The crew did a great job up there.”
Mattivi said the EMS crew was lucky the leakage was minimal. “We had time to work and get him out. It wasn’t a get-in and get-him out immediately; one thing on our side was some time, we could actually work on him without being rushed.”
OCEMS Chief Medic Norm Rooker said his crew didn’t underestimate the situation because methanol “is highly flammable and burns with an invisible flame and no smoke. Fires can only be spotted by the heat waves/shimmer in the air given off by the fire.”
Hwy. 550 – which had re-opened only hours before the accident on Thursday due to a snowstorm that blew through the region on Sunday night and into Monday (Jan. 27-28) – was closed from the time of the accident until early Thursday evening.
Howell was to have been issued a summons for driving hazardous material where hazardous materials are prohibited, according to the State Patrol.