Petro-Chemical is 'deficient' in accident rating

The company that owns the tanker that exploded on Interstate 95 this week received a "deficient" accident rating from a federal safety agency because its trucks have been involved in a high number of crashes in the past few years.

Texas-based Petro-Chemical Transport's 300 trucks were involved in 30 accidents in the past year, though none as serious as the explosion Tuesday that killed four people and shut down part of the East Coast's major thoroughfare for four hours.


The number of accidents led to a rating of 97 on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's 100-point scale, on which 100 is the worst score and zero the best. However, because the company scored well in other safety categories, including driver training, its overall rating was satisfactory.

"You're seeing accidents, but the accidents aren't all the result of the driver or the carrier," said Andy Beck, a spokesman for the federal agency. Beck said it reviewed Petro-Chemical's operations a year ago and did not find significant violations.


The company's president, James H. Reid, arrived in Baltimore yesterday to visit the tanker driver's family and meet with investigators. Reid said the accident was the worst since he became president in 1987 and the company's first to be investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"Our primary concern is that we take care of the family and we deal with the people that are affected by this tragedy," Reid said in an interview while traveling to the Finksburg home of the tanker driver, 64-year-old Jackie M. Frost. "We're also deeply concerned and saddened about the others who died."

In addition to Frost, authorities identified yesterday another person killed in the crash - 62-year-old Maurice Durschlag of Glen Burnie, the driver of a pickup truck that was consumed by flames. Marge Durschlag, the victim's sister-in-law, said he was returning home Tuesday from a job installing tile and that he is survived by his wife, Sandy, three children and six grandchildren.

Authorities said it could be days before they are able to confirm the identities of the other two victims.

Investigators returned yesterday to the section of I-95 in Elkridge where the explosion occurred, continued to evaluate burnt wreckage in a warehouse and attempted to retrace every step taken Tuesday by Frost.

"The obvious challenge is the fact there was a tremendous amount of fire, a tremendous amount of heat and a tremendous amount of damage," said Chief Gary W. McLhinney of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, which is leading the investigation. "It's not a typical accident investigation by any stretch."

Shortly before the accident Tuesday, the tanker driver picked up a load of premium gasoline at a Citgo distribution center near the southern end of the Harbor Tunnel in South Baltimore, investigators said. They would not say if the driver received a full or partial load of fuel before entering Interstate 895 from Childs Street.

Such evidence could be key to determining why the tanker truck was moving erratically on I-895 in the seconds before the crash. Investigators believe the load of fuel was shifting from side to side inside the tanker - as evidenced by tire marks on the highway pavement and scrapes on the jersey wall.


The movement eventually pushed the rear end of the tanker up and over the jersey wall on the overpass. The fuel then shifted to the back of the tanker and pulled it over onto I-95, where it exploded and engulfed four other vehicles in flames.

"The question is what caused the erratic driving," McLhinney said. He said the 12 state investigators working full-time on the case have entered reams of data from the scene into computers that are reconstructing how the accident happened.

Frost was headed to the Citgo station at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, one of the driver's regular stops, McLhinney said. Workers at the Citgo said yesterday that they worried when Frost didn't arrive and they heard of the explosion.

"I left here at 6:30 that night and he never showed up," said Barbara Hundley, 61. "I couldn't believe it. I used to go out and talk to him."

Court records show that Frost was cited seven times by Maryland police for traffic or safety offenses since 1989. In 1999, he received probation before judgment after a guilty plea for failing to obey roadway signs, and was found guilty then and in 2001 of exceeding maximum weight with his rig. He also was guilty early last year of having truck parts not in safe operating condition.

Maryland requires three licenses for drivers of gasoline tanker trucks, and Frost had all of them, according to the state Motor Vehicle Administration. Frost has had a Maryland commercial driver's license since 1992, and he also has the required tanker and hazardous materials endorsements.


In order to get the license, he would have had to pass an on-road truck driving test and five written exams, including one specifically on tanker trucks and another on braking techniques. He also had to pass a test covering some of the precautions spelled out in 201 pages of federal hazardous materials regulations.

"It's a pretty complex test," said Donald Montgomery, a Fort Worth, Texas-based consultant on hazardous materials transportation. "It's one of those that scares drivers."

Petro-Chemical tanker trucks have been involved in several serious accidents over the past decade, notably a 1995 crash in Detroit where the tanker burst into flames, killing the driver, and a 5,000-gallon fuel spill in St. Louis two years ago.

Despite those accidents, Reid, the company president, said Petro-Chemical has earned a satisfactory rating from the Department of Transportation for every year of his 16-year tenure.

"Accidents, by their very definition, are accidents," said Reid, whose company employs more than 800 drivers nationwide. "We do provide a safe transport for gasoline."

Staff from Petro-Chemical will remain in Baltimore throughout the NTSB investigation, Reid said, and he plans to make trips to and from the Texas headquarters.


"We want to make sure we do a complete investigation so we can see if there are any circumstances that can be prevented in the future," he said.

Sun staff writers Heather Dewar and Walter F. Roche Jr. and researchers Paul McCardell and Jean Packard contributed to this article.