Submitted June 18, 2012

Improper safety & preparedness leads to refuler truck accident

In the spring, about 1998, I was a young specialist in the Army Natl Guard. I was going up to Alaska to do a TDY (Temporary Duty Yonder). I was on Annette Island near Ketchikan. I was assigned to a joint task force to keep a promise to the native tribe that Uncle Sam had made during WWII but had yet to come good on. We were building a road through dense forest from the open ocean side of the island to the mainland side of the island. This would help the tribe get to hospitals more easily and help in their commerce.

There had been many accidents, averaging 2 per week. Some were broken legs from surveying, some were 20 yard dump trucks going off of cliffs. The most noteworthy was the reason I was there.

There was a new private first class that was given the role to manage the fuel supply to the camp. He was supposed to drive a 5 ton refueling truck around the site and manage the refueling of rock-drills, dumps, bulldozers, etc. He was used to driving automatic transmission vehicles from our fleet back home, but all of the vehicles that we were driving here were as old as the promise to the tribe from Uncle Sam. As the young private made his way down one of the steep grades on the road, he made a classic mistake. He rode his brakes all the way down the grade, and by the bottom they were so hot that they had no friction on the break rotors. His last hundred feet of decent down the grade were completely without his breaks and he had a river and curve waiting for him at the bottom.

He plunged into the river and his refueler overturned, spilling 500 gallons of diesel fuel into the river just 2 weeks before the salmon runs.

This is why I was brought up there was to take over this operation.

As I assumed my new role, I noticed that even with all of these accidents, safety was still quite lax in the camp. Safety chains on trucks and trailers were left off. When the camp safety officer was questioned he was very ambiguous as to why this was the case.

I would have many officers that out ranked me come to my refueling station and have lit cigarettes in their mouths. I was being fought by my chain of command and by the camp chain of command about these issues and was being told that I was being to picky. I was finally assigned an escort, Sergeant Carter. He told me that he could put his cigarette out in a cup of diesel, and that I was just being ignorant about the regulations of a 50 foot distance from open flames and fuel.

He ordered me to drive up to refuel an excavator and a rock drill. As I went up the hill, I found that just ten feet off the road there was a group of soldiers that were burning a pile of tree rubbish. I told the sergeant that we shouldn't go up there, and that we should have the equipment come down to us. He told me to shut up and drive up the hill. I grudgingly went. As I parked by the burning pile of rubbish, I had a distinct feeling that I was in great danger. I prayed to God for protection and that he would forgive our stupidity for being there, then I continued with the fueling operation. We had backed up to within five feet of the back of a Ingersoll-Rand Rock Drill. It had a 5-ton compressor trailer attached to the back, and as was the norm, it was not connected with the safety chains. Several Navy Sea Bees were there working around their assigned rock drill. I hauled my refueling hoses to the excavator and gave them to the sergeant and returned to the refueler to run my pumps in between the back of the truck and the back of the rock drill trailer. As I got there, I saw one of the seamen there at the back of his trailer with a utility door opened on the trailer. I said hello, and started my fuel pumps. Over the noise of the pumps I heard the sergeant yell at me. I didn't hear him, so I went to find out what he said. He rudely yelled at me to shut down the pumps as we were full on the excavator. As I returned, the seamen in the front with the rock drill started to move their equipment. As they did, their trailer came dislodged and rolled back crushing the seamen that was at the rear between my truck and his trailer. The seamen looked at me as his face turned grey. I yelled for help, but no one could hear over the equipment. I dove to the ground and started throwing jagged ruble rock under the trailer to chock the tires from rolling backward. As I ran to the other side to choke those tires, I was surprised to see that the excavator operator had noticed what had happened and extended his bucket of the excavator and grabbed the trailer so that it couldn't roll down hill anymore. I ran for the truck, but the sergeant was already there driving it forward. The seamen fell to the ground like a leaf.

In the aftermath I jumped to the seamen's side and yelled for a medic. As I opened his clothing it seemed that most of the injury was internal. All I could do was watch and comfort him as he made a faint whimper. The ambulance came and I helped take him to the nearest bay where we waited for a seaplane to take him to the hospital for examination.

Afterwards, I went into the trees and cried in anguish of what had just happened. Then I thought of how God had blessed me. If I had been at my station behind the truck during the accident, my fate would have been worse than the seamen's, because I ran my pumps from the center of the rear of the truck. And at the center rear of the truck, the truck had a trailer hitch mounted about at my waist height. I most certainly would have been impaled had I stayed at my station. I thanked God for his mercy and prayed for the seamen to recover, which he did. Even though I was extremely mad at this occurrence, my chain of command told the camp chain of command that I would have full jurisdiction to fuel the way I was trained to do it from then on. And no one gave me anymore crap about safety.

- John Barlow

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