One dead, 3 hurt in fiery Avon semi crash

John LaConte
Special to the The Vail Daily
Aspen, CO Colorado
Ryan Schmidt/Special to The Vail DailyFirefighters work to extinguish flames after a semi truck fell from Interstate 70 onto Avon Road Sunday morning.

AVON, Colo. – Vail-area resident Rick MacCutcheon and his daughter Joanna didn’t expect to see a miracle on their way to church Sunday morning.

But that’s how they described the immediate aftermath of a horrific crash, when they witnessed two people walk out the wreckage unharmed.

The crash occurred at 9:54 a.m. when a semi truck driver hauling two trailers lost control in the westbound lanes, sending the truck flying off the overpass at Avon Road. One of the trailers landed on a Honda CR-V traveling south on Avon Road, crushing the driver’s side of the vehicle.

The driver of the semi truck was left dead in the accident.

The MacCutcheons were traveling north on Avon Road and saw the crash happen before their eyes.

Rick MacCutcheon said the rear trailer had become detached and was traveling at a high rate of speed, both airborne and facing backwards when it flew off the highway and landed on the CR-V. Moments later, the cab and trailer to which it was attached also tumbled off the overpass.

“The first thing that happened was just this huge plume of dust,” MacCutcheon said. “Then flames started right away and there was an explosion. I turned to Joanna and said, ‘There’s somebody in there. We’ve got to go get them out.’ … We jumped out of the car and ran to the area, which was so dense with smoke and dust that you couldn’t see all that well, and this couple emerged from it and were walking out of it.”

In the moments leading up to the crash, the truck scraped loudly against the highway’s guard rail, drawing the attention of several eyewitnesses.

Jerry Weiss was among those eyewitnesses and says he saw MacCutcheon emerge from the flames with the couple.

“I told them to get out of there,” Weiss said.

Moments later came the second explosion, which witnesses described as being 50 feet high and deafening.

“I could feel it from my house,” said Avon resident John Byron, who lives in the Sonnenhalde condos, about a quarter-mile away. “The flames were four times as high as the bridge. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

Rick MacCutcheon says Weiss’ warning saved the lives of himself and especially Joanna, who was already back in the smoke looking for the driver.

“I was deep within the overpass looking for the truck driver, and as I was calling for him I heard some frantic whistling and I heard a male screaming and calling for help, so I knew he had heard my voice and I wanted to stay there with him, but I heard a gas line,” she said, describing it as a “whishhh” sound. “And as I heard that, I heard Jerry call for me to get out of there so I started sprinting back towards the car, and right as I was getting back in the car the second explosion went off. You could feel the heat and the pressure and it kind of threw me forward a little bit.”

The driver of the semi was killed during the crash, Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said Sunday. It will take longer than usual to positively identify the body, Bettis said, but the victim was male.

“We should know in the next couple days,” she said.

Bettis said the body will undergo an autopsy today.

“I’m praying for him and his family,” Joanna MacCutcheon said.

A passenger in the semi was treated for non-critical injuries at Vail Valley Medical Center. The couple in the SUV were also treated for non-critical injuries, authorities said.

Witnesses said the heat from the second explosion could be felt from far away.

“I’m surprised it didn’t bring down that bridge,” Byron said.

A structural engineer from the Colorado Department of Transportation was examining the bridge Sunday to see if its integrity was compromised in the crash, explosion or ensuing flames.

The eastbound lanes reopened just before 2 p.m., while a single westbound lane I-70 was still closed Sunday night from Avon to Edwards. Avon Road also remained closed.