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Updated: Saturday, 03 Nov 2012, 4:55 PM MDT
Published : Saturday, 03 Nov 2012, 9:15 AM MDT
CUBERO, N.M. (KRQE) - A big-rig driver hauling 8,800 gallons of gasoline rolled his truck over in the median of Interstate 40 Saturday morning touching off a massive fire and shutting down the highway.
The crash happened about 7:30 a.m. between the Cubero and Acomita exits about 50 miles west of Albuquerque. It is not clear which direction the tanker was headed.
State Police Lt. Robert McDonald told KRQE News 13 the driver, Dennis Pritchard, 33, of Rio Rancho, was airlifted to UNM Hospital with injuries not believed to be serious.
Officers are investigating whether the driver fell asleep, he said, adding alcohol did not appear to involved in the crash.
A relative of the driver, however, told News 13 the driver heard a pop at the back of his rig, saw flames and tried to ease the truck into the median. The driver has been released from the hospital and is headed home, the relative added.
The fire was out by about 10 a.m. although I-40 remained closed, Undersheriff Tony Mace of the Cibola County Sheriff's Office told News 13.
McDonald said flames and heat did enough damage to the pavement the New Mexico Department of Transportation must first do repairs. The fire was so intense firefighters had to let much of the gas burn off before they could fight the remaining flames, he said.
One lane of westbound I-40 opened by 11 a.m., and the eastbound lanes reopened about 3 p.m. However the 75 mph speed limit was cut to 60 mph with signs warning of rough pavement.
During the closures traffic was diverted to State Route 124 between exit 102 at Acomita and Sky City Casino and exit 104 at Cubero.
A KRQE News 13 viewer near the scene described the incident as an explosion with a massive smoke cloud and flames visible from miles away.
Mace said it was less an explosion and more a fire that quickly grew in intensity.
Regardless thick, black smoke drifted eastward and was reported to be hanging over Laguna Pueblo about 10 miles from the crash.