• Pedro

25 years ago: A crash, a flash, a missile in the night

Those who survived it recall a deadly I-287 propane tank blast that turned the midnight sky orange and sent a 43-foot tank hurtling into a quiet White Plains neighborhood, triggering fires on the highway and on both sides of the major thoroughfare.


They remember an explosion louder than any they had ever heard, a 300-foot fireball that turned the just-past-midnight sky bright orange, and a missile sent spinning into their quiet neighborhood.


“I felt as though the sun stopped by my house,” said Laura Rúa Reidy, who was 25 then, watching TV in her attic apartment at 12:28 a.m., July 27, 1994.


Something else stopped by her house on Clinton Street an instant after that midnight sun: a 43-foot, 1-inch propane tank propelled by a concussion that could be felt across White Plains.


Twenty-five years later, residents and first-responders remember well the night a propane-tanker truck slammed into an Interstate 287 overpass, hurtling the driver — who had fallen asleep at the wheel — so far from the wreckage that police at first couldn’t find him. The crash buckled the bridge, triggered fires on both sides of the highway and shut the major six-lane route for nearly 24 hours.


They still find it hard to believe that Paraco Gas Corp. driver Peter Conway, 23, was the only one who died in a night of fire, confusion, frantic escapes and remarkable near-misses.


“To have only one death with an accident of this magnitude should cause us all to go to church," Dr. Roger Salisbury, then chief of the burn unit at Westchester County Medical Center, said at the time.


For some, that night led to years of pain and suffering, surgery and therapy, lawyers and settlements. Others made it out relatively unscathed from an event that they said felt like the end of the world.


It could easily have been much worse.


(Click on map icons below to see what happened at each location.)




CHAPTER 1

A massive debris field

Flames on I-287 and on both sides of the major highway


Sixteen months later, the National Transportation Safety Board report laid out what happened


Just after midnight, Conway, of Selden, New York — who had slept a scant 2 1/2 hours in the previous 48 hours — was hauling 9,200 gallons of liquid propane eastbound on I-287 in White Plains. He fell asleep at the wheel, drifted across a lane of traffic just east of Exit 6, and struck the left guardrail.


The tank rolled over and hit a column of the Grant Avenue overpass, separating the tractor and trailer. The tank punctured, releasing the pressurized propane as vapor, which ignited, sparking a massive chain reaction and creating an accident scene larger than anything any of the first-responders had ever seen.


  • A fireball rose 28 stories in the air, engulfing in fire an area with a radius of 400 feet.

  • Conway was thrown from the truck, catapulted hundreds of feet from the wreckage. He died of blunt-force trauma, the coroner ruled.

  • Parts of the truck were sent in all directions.

  • The tractor continued down I-287, coming to rest 400 feet away, ablaze.

  • The ruptured tank flew 300 feet north, igniting two homes north of the highway.

  • The tanker's rear wheels flew nearly 600 feet south and west, crushing a garage south of the highway.

  • The fireball set ablaze homes on Grant Avenue and a garage on Lenox Avenue.

  • Nineteen residents and four firefighters were injured: 13 minor; four moderate; four serious and two critical.

  • Among the critically injured was Analuz Espinal, who was 7 months pregnant. She gave birth to her third child 16 hours later. Her burns were so severe she could not hold her newborn son, Juan Leandro.

  • The overpass buckled, one of its four major support columns shorn off. It would be 15 years before the bridge was again open to two-way traffic.


The crash ratcheted up calls for changes in the number of hours truck drivers were permitted to work. Those changes came. And Purchase-based Paraco is still in business, nearly triple its 1994 size.




CHAPTER 2

'Let me die with my family'

One woman was sure it was the end of the world


One hundred yards north of the crash, at 99 Clinton St., Laura Rúa heard and felt the explosion.


“More than a noise there was a movement like a vibe in my house,” she said. “Then, almost immediately after, my window to my left imploded. And I saw orange.”


Her mind raced. Knocked over in a shower of shattering glass, she got up and ran to the attic stairs, hoping to reach her father and stepmother in their bedroom two floors below.


“I grew up very Catholic and I thought, 'Oh, Geez! It's the end of the world!'" she said. “'Let me just run downstairs and die with my family.'”


The steep attic stairs were knocked sideways by the tank’s impact. Halfway down, she had to jump five feet. Unable to get to the front door, frantic, she ran around back. No luck. Back to the front, she saw her family coming out with tenants from the second floor.


“I thought it was a nuclear bomb, I really did,” she said. “There was no other explanation for me at that time because of the orange and the explosion.”


Thinking back, she laughs at how her brain was working in that turmoil. She began to think that if this was Armageddon, it sure was taking its time.


“I said to myself, 'It can't be the end of the world because it's gotta be now a minute. We'd be dead already by now.’ At that point, I think it's an airplane because we'd been alive too long.”


She also realized that if her brother, Guillermo, had been home — instead of at his one-day-a-week midnight shift at the Texaco on North Broadway — he would have been on his latest obsession, their computer, in the direct path of whatever had just hit their home.


Any other night, he would have been home. Any other night, he would have been dead.


Whatever had hit their house — was it a plane? — had wiped away the back half of their attic before landing in the Brunner house next door, at 103 Clinton St.


Laura Rúa looked to the Brunner’s.


“You could see the articulation of the floor and the rooms," she said. "It was like somebody opened up their house and it was a dollhouse.”


It took her father, José, six years to rebuild on the site. Standing on the sidewalk where firefighters once scrambled to save his home, he laughs when it is pointed out that he made it out alive and has lived 25 more years.


“I’ve got 76 years now and I’m still over here,” he said.



CHAPTER 3

'Each birthday a grim anniversary'

The family most severely burned grew by one later that day


Analuz Espinal speaks softly and smiles easily when she comes to the door of her South Broadway home, two miles and 25 years from that nightmare.


The yard is tidy, behind a white PVC picket fence. In a planting bed, tomatoes are being coaxed skyward. This summer day is as far from that summer night as can be.

Then, she was 7 months pregnant. She and her husband, Leo, were about to welcome a third child to join sister Leonela, 3, and brother Leonel, 2.


The explosion and fireball, which could be seen and heard miles away, was 150 feet from the Espinals. Their second-story apartment burst into flame. The fastest way out for the family — father, mother, two toddlers and Analuz's mother — was to the roof, where, badly burned, neighbors plucked them to safety.


Analuz and little Leonel were in critical condition in the burn unit at Westchester Medical Center, alongside Leo. Leonel suffered serious burns to his hands and his right leg, which had muscle and nerve damage. Analuz had third-degree burns over 58 percent of her body.


Sixteen hours later, on a life-saving ventilator that made it impossible for her to speak to doctors, Analuz gave birth via Caesarean section to 4-pound-6-ounce Juan Leandro Espinal.


Her hands were so badly burned, wrapped in gauze and splints, she could not hold her new baby. But he was born in good condition.


The years would bring dozens of surgeries, multiple skin grafts and countless hours of physical therapy. Analuz couldn’t be in the sun; her scars were sensitive to sunlight.


There were emotional scars, too, requiring counseling.


A sealed multi-million-dollar legal settlement took care of the family’s medical bills, which were estimated to be nearly $10 million. The Espinals' attorney said at the time that the settlement — with Purchase-based Paraco and Ryder, which leased the truck to Paraco — would "take care of all the needs of the family for their lifetimes.”


The boy whose birthday is also a grim anniversary is about to turn 25. The family calls him Leandro. He works in marketing in New York City. Analuz said her family is not interested in being interviewed.


“Everyone is OK,” she said.



CHAPTER 4

They slid down the tank to safety

It set their home on fire but became their only way out


Had the Yankee game gone later that night, Ed Brunner would have been crushed to death in the downstairs family room addition he had finished a year before.


As it was, he was asleep alongside his wife, Michele, when the airborne propane tank sliced through the Rúas' attic next door and landed in the family room, one floor below. They awoke covered in debris, their master bedroom on fire.


“The ceiling came down, the drywall and everything was laying on us,” said Brunner, who now lives with his wife in North Carolina. “I thought we weren't going to get out because we had so much debris on top of us.”


The Brunners soon heard their son, Billy, banging on the door, which was jammed shut when the house was torqued by the tank’s impact.


“It was burning so rapidly I think the house was gone like in less than 20 minutes,” Brunner said. “It was a really hot fire. We didn't have a heck of a lot of time to get out of there.”


With no door and no time, and only the light from their burning bedroom to guide them, he found the window overlooking the back yard. He saw the tank and came to the same wrong conclusion others would that night: “It was a big cylinder so I knew it was a plane.”


In a split second, he saw a way out.


“We actually jumped out the window and slid down the tank,” he said.


While the tank had sparked fires in its path, it was cool to the touch, thanks to evaporative cooling. It's the same physics that makes a barbecue grill's pressurized propane tank cool when its liquid propane is turned into gas: The decrease in pressure that changes liquid to gas results in a decrease in temperature.


Michele Brunner suffered burns, cuts and bruises and spent 10 days in the hospital for smoke inhalation, one of 23 injured that night. Ed Brunner, who was hospitalized for three or four days, said he has had no lingering health issues — and none of the nightmares people expect him to have. Still, that harrowing night has stayed with him.


“It's pretty hard to forget something like that,” he said. “We could have died there. That's for sure.”



CHAPTER 5

'It was like wartime, actually'

A new firefighter escaped the fire, and then fought it


It turned out the first firefighter on the scene that night was in the scene that night.


John Caldarola was a 24-year-old newbie White Plains firefighter, on his way home from a date when he saw lights on in the Brunner house. That's where his friends Jimmy and Billy Covert lived with their sisters, Francine Covert and Amy Brunner, and their parents, in the blended Brunner-Covert family.


Even though it was 11:30 and he had to be at the firehouse in the morning, he dropped by to find his friends playing video games and hanging out in the front right upstairs room. So Caldarola hung out.


An hour later, all hell broke loose.


He, too, recalls the entire neighborhood bathed in bright orange, and no time to think.


“I grabbed the two girls and we ran downstairs," Caldarola said. “Billy’s screaming ‘My parents! My parents!’ so I ran back up there and the flames were already in that hallway.”


They found the Brunner parents there, dazed.


“We weren't sure what was going on,” the now-retired firefighter said. “We thought we were possibly bombed. It was like wartime, actually.”


He remembers so many details of that night: how ambulances and fire engines were lined up nearly all the way to North White Plains; how, before he knew it, he was handed a firecoat, a helmet and gloves and was putting out the fire in the house he had just escaped.


For years, he was affected by the brush with death.


“Anytime there was a major thunderstorm with the pounding of thunder, lightning, thunder it freaked me out,” he said. “I couldn't sleep. It kept me from sleeping for quite a few years but now it doesn't bother me anymore.”



CHAPTER 6

Was it murder? A plane crash?

First-responders arrived to a mystery


Getting to the scene minutes after the I-287 propane-tanker explosion just after midnight on July 27, 1994, first-responders knew they had fires to fight, but they knew little else.


They didn't know how widespread the scene was. (It was massive.)


They also didn't know if it was a plane crash. (It wasn't.)


Or if they were walking into a murder scene. (They weren't.)


“It wasn't until months later that we determined guy fell asleep at the wheel,” said White Plains Police Deputy Commissioner James Bradley, who was police chief back then.


That night, it could have been any number of causes, with terrorism in 1994 not thought to be among them, Bradley said. What had happened to Paraco Gas Corp. driver Peter Conway?


“Was he shot? Was he run off the road? I mean the first thing that comes to mind is did somebody run the tanker off the road? If it is, you’ve got a murder investigation,” Bradley said.


A murder investigation would require a body and, at first, police couldn’t find Conway.


“He was shot out of a cannon,” Bradley said. “The truck stopped and he kept going. And then when it exploded, he was like sitting on the edge holding onto a rocket. He went across and he hit a rock wall, but he hit a rock wall about 1,500 feet down the road.”


For all the chaos in the early hours of July 27, 1994, the men who led the disaster response recall that everyone reacted as they were supposed to.


More than 150 firefighters from across Westchester and at least that many White Plains Police officers were called to work. There were so many fire companies that Bradley gave White Plains Fire Chief John Cullen extra radio space.


“We had to give him more channels to work with so he could tell a whole subsection ‘You switch to channel five’ or another subsection ‘You go to seven.’ We had people holding radios for him.”


Blas Diaz was deputy fire chief. Among the first on the scene, he arrived by a route he had no reason to believe was perilous — over the Grant Avenue overpass that was struck by Conway's tanker.


”The bridge was cocked,” he said. “It was structurally insecure.”

Diaz remembers seeing pools of zinc on the bridge deck, melted from the galvanized chain-link fence by the crash’s inferno. “It was like a bomb,” he said.


For Diaz, the story of that night is the by-the-book way in which responders reacted.


“There were four or five structures burning and we had two exposures that we had to cover,” he said. “The men just showed up at the right place at the right time and located the vehicles and did what they had to do.”


When Cullen arrived, he found Diaz had things well in hand.


“It was calm,” Cullen recalled with a laugh. “There was no excitement.”

Cullen is convinced the topography of the crash site — that I-287 was well below the road level on Grant Avenue — limited the damage.


“There's a big hill and if that gas ever got over there, we would've had houses up there on fire," Cullen said. "We were lucky that it ignited as quick as it did."

Bradley lives a quarter-mile from the blast site and saw the fireball erupt, his lasting memory of that night.


“So I'm there quicker than most and I'm having a little trouble figuring out just how big this thing is,” he said. “At some point you just figure out, ‘OK it's really big.’”


His job was threefold: set the perimeter to give Cullen’s crews room to work, set up medical triage, and figure out a way to get ambulances and fire companies in and out.


Bradley’s officers were handling traffic, but also documenting everything, in case the situation led to a criminal investigation.


As more fire crews arrived, some from as far as New Rochelle, the perimeter expanded.


“It was an all-call for everybody,” Bradley said. “They do what they call a general recall which means everybody comes back to work. And that's the only time I think I've ever done that."


State troopers had closed 287, because the highway was in flames. It would reopen at 11:13 p.m., less than 24 hours later.


For years after, late-night truckers paid tribute to Conway, sounding their horns as they passed the crash site.


The first-responders remain surprised that Conway’s was the only fatality that night.


Says Cullen: “We were fortunate. When did you ever see 287 — even 25 years ago — (when) there was no traffic?”



CHAPTER 7

'Our priority was to learn from this'

25 years later, tanker company is still in business


Purchase-based Paraco Gas Corp. is still in business 25 years after the 1994 propane-tanker crash that killed one of its drivers.


Joe Armentano is still its CEO.


“I can remember this accident like it was yesterday," Armentano said in a statement. "I was on-site at the scene of the accident within hours. Our priority was to learn from this in order to build a better and safer company."


In its final report, the NTSB faulted Paraco's lax oversight of worker sleep and driving hours.


A federal judge also fined the company $1 million after Armentano admitted in court that driver logs had been falsified. The bogus records suggested that drivers were off duty and resting when they were actually driving, in violation of federal safety standards.


Twenty-eight of the 93 falsified sleep-work logs were Peter Conway's, the 287-tanker driver who died when he fell asleep at the wheel of a tanker truck carrying 9,200 gallons of liquid propane on Interstate 287 in White Plains on July 27, 1994.


Armentano said the millions of dollars in legal settlements to victims of the crash were paid by its insurers and that the $1 million fine was paid by Paraco.


The NTSB looked at the safety of the road, design of the bridge and guardrail, and design of the tanker truck (including an examination of how NASA transports rocket fuel) before concluding the probable cause was Conway's "failure to properly schedule and obtain rest, and the failure of the management of Paraco Gas Corporation, Inc., to exercise adequate oversight of its driver's hours of service."


Paraco, which was founded 50 years ago in Mount Vernon by Armentano's father, Pat, had 150 employees in 1994. Armentano said it now has 425 workers and operates a fleet of 300 vehicles, delivering 60 million gallons of propane a year to 120,000 customers in eight states.


Armentano said the company's reaction to the crash has earned it respect in the industry and the communities it serves. He called Paraco's safety record "exemplary."


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© 2019 Peter D. Kramer