By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
GRASSY BUTTE, N.D. – Trucker Gene Chandler says the funniest things seemingly always happen to him.
By funniest, he probably means awful, terrible and terrifying.
Perched atop a weed-covered hillside three miles north of Grassy Butte, N.D, Friday night, Chandler watches as the big rig diesel truck he was driving just minutes before burns.
Traffics stands still and drivers leave their cars to watch the truck’s fiery final minutes.
Chandler talks on the phone with his boss, recounting the frightening experience.
The scene is terrifying to onlookers, but not to this veteran driver.
Chandler, in his mid-40s, is from Tukwila, Wash., more than 1,100 miles from Williston, N.D., his temporary home. He’s a congenial fellow, quick to smile about the incident. His dirty white T-shirt and ball cap are testament to the life he leads in these parts.
He relocated to North Dakota to spend more time with his son, who also works in the area. Chandler, like so many others, also came to make some quick money.
He’s part of the industrial revolution of sorts transforming what used to be a sleepy western North Dakota region. Where quiet, subdued towns dotted rolling wheat-producing hills, big rig trucks and trailers now crowd the highways, as oil giants such as New York-based Hess and Oklahoma-based Continental Resources search for black gold.
The companies use hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, to drill two miles below the earth’s surface to reach an expansive oil reserve in the Bakken and Three Forks geologic formation. Estimates put the oil reserve at 17 billion barrels, and the region now produces about 500,000 barrels daily. Within three years, analysts predict more than 1 million barrels from the region each day.
Big rigs are critical to operations, hauling equipment and supplies to the oil patches dotting the landscape. But with the increase in numbers comes an increase in danger.
Last year, North Dakota reported more roadway deaths than ever, a fact some attribute to increased industrial traffic.
Officials quickly note that, proportionally, the road mortality rate slips from prior years. Still, traffic last year on a section of road near Williston tripled over 2006 numbers, the N.D. Department of Transportation says.
Power players try to keep up to maintain safer roadways. The Legislature hired 12 highway patrolmen, with most of them watching western highways. Officials even compressed the police training schedule to quickly usher the new troopers from the classroom to the road.
Yet, accidents such as Chandler’s happen. It’s an unfortunate and unpleasant truth to oil patch life.
Chandler was hauling 48,000 pounds of fly ash, a coal product drillers use to neutralize the toxicity of spent fracking water returned to the earth’s surface. En route to Williston, a central hub of the Bakken oil boom, the truck blew a tire, and Chandler tried to quickly slow his rig.
But such a heavy load requires elongated stopping, and road friction mixed with the nearly 90-degree temperatures caused the tire to burst into flames.
Chandler stopped, threw open his door, grabbed his onboard fire extinguisher and tried to douse the blaze.
No luck. The extinguisher was inadequate and another tire caught fire. Then another.
The truck was lost and Chandler knew it. Onlookers realized it, too.
What happened next is something of wonder, yet a harsh and utterly dangerous showing of the job-comes-first burden carried by oil workers.
Chandler climbed back into his rig and pulled it forward about 30 feet. The whole operation took about 45 seconds, but the fire grew with each tick of the clock.
Chandler said later he needed to move the truck so his trailer wouldn’t block a dirt access road jutting off the highway.
As if someone would ignore the enormous blaze and drive around the burning truck just to get to a jobsite.
Finally, another motorist had seen enough. A man jumped from a white Chevy Suburban and screamed at Chandler.
“Get out of there!”
Chandler grabbed his time sheets, schedules and a bag of personal belongings, including a box of cheese crackers.
Diving in a burning truck to save paperwork is yet another possibly deadly indicator of oil field stress.
“I was just trying to make sure I got my paperwork, the stuff they need,” he said afterward, referring to his company’s central office.
“I wasn’t worried.”
His cool head probably comes from a lifetime spent trucking and working in some of the most dangerous situations.
He recounts his time as a log trucker. “I’ve been hit by logs,” he says. “I’ve been pinned by logs.”
A number of years ago, he toppled a log truck. “I just had to get out of that truck before the logs got me.”
With some coaxing, the Chevy driver persuaded Chandler to distance himself from the truck as the fire worked its way to the other tires and the cab.
Chandler sat on the hillside and watched it burn.
Eventually, the flames engulfed the dual 100-gallon diesel fuel tanks. They didn’t explode — diesel fuel’s properties prevent that — but each tank created a giant fire ball through a quick burn.
An explosion, probably caused by a bursting air tank, rocked the scene.
About 13 minutes passed before firefighters showed up. The first vehicle was a 1964 International truck, outfitted for grass fires with a nozzle that can be pointed in any direction by an in-cab joystick.
The fire department is an all-volunteer force out of Grassy Butte, a small agricultural town with just 209 residents. It typically handles grass fires, but occasionally deals with industrial accidents such as Chandler’s. Because volunteers don’t regularly staff the firehouse, response times are slower than what they might be elsewhere.
Scarce services are simply another reality of conducting businesses in North Dakota’s western region.
Nikki McAlpin, a female volunteer, says she was nine miles away on a dirt road in the middle of a hay field. “I did 90 (mph) to get here,” she tells the fire captain.
The department bought two new trucks late last year. Firefighters admit they couldn’t have doused Friday’s truck fire as quickly without them.
A hollowed-out shell is all that remains of the Freightliner big rig. The trailer had light damage, but its dense steel body kept it from burning.
Chandler takes a swig of a one liter Pepsi bottle, watching a wrecker as it prepares the burnt remains for transport.
“There was not much I could do,” he says.
His employer’s insurance will fully cover the loss.