We set out from Townsville along the Bruce Highway. Another one of those North Queensland days, hot, humid but dry as the car bit into the asphalt along the narrow single carriageway. The driver increased speed as we left the outskirts, heading towards the Nickel Refinery at Yabula.
The highway meandered into a dip where we could see the intersection looming up ahead. Chris, the driver, reduced speed, planning to make a right turn at the intersection. The car came to a standstill as Chris checked the oncoming traffic, waiting for a safe moment to make the turn. Hot, Townsville at it’s best!. The aircon was not functioning as we would have liked….”bloody aircon’s stuffed!” Chris muttered. We all nodded in resigned agreement. I proceeded to wipe sweat off my face and forehead, re-adjusting my posture, sitting forwards so that the back of my sopping wet shirt did not stick to the to the back of the seat.
It was then that I glanced into the car’s side traffic mirror. I could not believe my eyes! Looming larger and larger, hurtling into the dip, occupying the full left lane, was a behemoth of a yellow and orange B-Double Tanker- and it seemed out of control!
In a split second, the tanker was right behind us – it looked as if a collision was imminent. I braced myself for the impact, shouting to Chris, “Oh ….what the…..watch out!”
The tanker veered onto the gravel shoulder and hurtled past us in a blur of yellow and orange. I caught a glimpse of the driver silhouetted in the cabin, frantically hammering his fist against the window. A powerful gust of air shook the car as the rogue juggernaut tried to correct it’s trajectory.
We sat transfixed, gaping at the spectacle unfolding before our eyes. It appeared as if the right back wheels of the B-Double Trailer started to slowly lift – lifting the right hand side of the tanker as well. “This is against the laws of mechanics, surely the tanker should turn the trailer and not the other way around?”, flashed through my mind. This was all contrary to the principle of “energy – out – of – control”, a principle which we risk management people hammered into the heads of our students at the university. The bigger energy always wins!
But it was not to be so. In slow motion the trailer appeared to turn the tanker over. Then both vehicles started to roll – once, twice….. It was then that I noticed that the side of the tanker had ripped open with petrol spraying out of the side onto the asphalt.
Then the only sound was the whirring of the tanker wheels in the air; the tanker now lay in a spreading pool of gasoline. Chris, Daniel in the back of the car, and I scrambled out into the Gasoline pool – into a cloud of stifling Gasoline vapour. Please God! The wheels are still turning! Ignition sources – ignition sources?? Panic setting in, we ran towards the tanker; the driver, the driver!
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the policeman and then the police car. They had seen the incident from the filling station, where they were in the process of filling up-they were at the scene within a minute.
The policemen somehow knew what to do; reaching somewhere in the vicinity of the spinning wheels, he managed to switch the engine off. “Get away you stupid fuckers!” he shouted; but to little avail, as Chris managed to yank the door of the tanker cabin open.
Daniel and I heeded his command however and sloshed through the Gasoline, certain we were going to be engulfed in flames or within a flash fire any moment! The vapour stung my eyes; breathing became difficult and my head started to spin. Fortunately we managed to get out of the pool, finding ourselves off the road; breathing became easier and the strange “knocking” in my head subsided.
Chris in the meantime had managed to get into the cabin. The driver stared at him, muttering incoherently into a mobile phone. His leg was bloodied; otherwise appeared to be unharmed physically, but had “lost the plot”. “Who’re you, where am I” he muttered as Chris and the policeman dragged him from the cabin.
At this point the Fire Brigade had arrived and were busy applying foam to the flammable Gasoline, covering the area with a blanket of foam – incineration had been avoided! We were alive and survived to tell the tale!
The ambulance arrived, taking the driver to hospital. Paramedics checked us to see if we had suffered any effects from exposure to the vapour. The Bruce Highway was cordoned off and shut for a period of 24 hours. Nearby Yabula was without water as the tanker had managed to sever a main water line to the town, adding to the general chaos. We decided to call it a day and go home.
Yes, there was a sequel to this. During the court hearing, the driver of the tanker kept repeating that he had “saved our lives” by veering onto the gravel shoulder. “Could have smashed you guys to smithereens” he said. He kept his job with the oil company.
A few months after this, we were down in Mackay, filling up at a local filling station, when a yellow and orange B-Double Tanker pulled up behind us. Guess who climbed out of the cabin and walked over to us? “I saved your lives – could have smashed you to smithereens” he said, putting his mobile into his front pocket.