SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) — The southbound lanes of Interstate 95 in Johnston County reopened Thursday afternoon, a day after a fiery crash involving a tractor-trailer carrying toxic chemicals damaged the road.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation said the flames from yesterday’s chemical-fueled fire created a hole in the interstate.
The woods next to the interstate were still smoking Thursday morning.
Three wrecks occurred on that stretch of I-95 on Wednesday.
The first wreck happened around noon when a tractor-trailer driving north on I-95 near mile-marker 90 went off the right shoulder into the tree line, pinning the driver, according to Lt. Jeff Gordon of the highway patrol.
Both directions of I-95 were closed to allow a helicopter to land to transport truck driver. The driver has been identified as Nenad Skulic, 29, of Tacoma, Washington. He suffered non-life threatening injuries.
Around 1:30 p.m., onlookers in the southbound lane caused traffic to slow, which then led to a recreational vehicle running into the back of a tractor trailer near mile-marker 95, Gordon said. The tractor-trailer was carrying a solid corrosive material, which ignited upon impact.
The driver of the RV involved in the collision died. The driver of the truck transporting the hazardous materials was able to release the cab and escape. Emergency responders called for an evacuation when the color of the smoke changed, indicating that chemicals were being burned.
An hour later, a five-vehicle accident occurred near mile-marker 88 on I-95 northbound.
A recreational vehicle was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer, then spun and was hit by another tractor trailer. The second tractor trailer then rear ended a passenger car, which in turn rear-ended a third tractor trailer, Gordon said.
Two people inside the recreational vehicle that was hit near mile-marker 88 were killed, Gordon said. A third person from the vehicle was sent to a hospital and has been transferred to another hospital in serious condition. One person from one of the tractor-trailers was also seriously injured. All other injuries from that wreck are believed to be non-life-threatening, he said.
The two people killed in the RV have been identified as Christopher Michael Porter, 36, of Pell City, Alabama, and Mitchel Alan Vandenburg, 30, of Loveland, Colorado.
The driver of the tractor-trailer which began the collision, has been identified as Alex Omar Lopez, 44, of Miami, Florida. Lopez has been charged with two counts of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle. He was processed at the Johnston County Detention Center and placed under a $5,000 secured bond.
Highway patrol officers said the tractor-trailer involved in the southbound crash was carrying multiple chemicals- which they say was a “corrosive solid”, and it ignited upon impact.
Johnston County officials told CBS North Carolina that there were four chemicals being carried in the truck. They did not provide names, only numbers. The chemicals were UN2468, UN2880, UN1479, and UN3260.
A chemist told CBS North Carolina an explosion could have occurred if first responders used water to extinguish the fire.
Those between two and three miles from the wreck were told to shelter in place following the crash. Town officials said the best and safest course of action was to allow the wreckage to continue to burn, which they did.
Cleveland and Princeton high schools were used to shelter the displaced. The evacuation order was lifted at 2:45 a.m. Thursday.
Johnston County Schools opened two hours late Thursday, as did the county’s government offices. Town offices in Smithfield opened at 10 a.m.
Drivers have been advised to avoid the area. Interstate 95 northbound reopened in the area of the crashes just before 5 a.m. Thursday, more than 12 hours after the highway was shut down.
Southbound lanes reopened Thursday afternoon around 5:45 p.m. The lanes had been closed between the Interstate 40 interchange (exit 81) and U.S. Route 70 (exit 97).
Due to the hazardous material, people within a few miles radius were evacuated and I-95 northbound and southbound were both shut down, which stranded some travelers.
CBS North Carolina spoke to one man from Texas who has been stuck in North Carolina since his vehicle was damaged during Hurricane Matthew.
He’s been staying at a Smithfield hotel and was evacuated after the accident.
“Brownish smoke started coming around. I started feeling nauseated, my throat started to feel like it was closing up. Took us to the hospital, ran tests on us and stuff. I went through this hurricane- now this? I am so ready to go home right now.”
NCDOT officials said the southbound lanes of I-95 are being repaired and will likely reopen sometime this afternoon or evening.
Until the road is reopened, the Highway Patrol released a detour around the closure:
A very short detour is in place to get around the work, with vehicles exiting at U.S. Route 70 Business (exit 95), crossing the highway and going down the on-ramp to return to I-95.