That's Another Story

Car Fire at Highest Point on I-80

On one of our trips, to our home town in Kansas, we stopped at a rest area located — at exit 323 — near the highest point on I-80. The sun had just gone down, however, there was enough light in the sky for us to see the very large bust of Abraham Lincoln that looks over the freeway below.

After looking at the sculpture and visiting the information center, I went to an observation area that overlooks the I-80 freeway below. By this time, darkness had completely overtaken us as we looked down on the lights of the cars on the highway. The vehicles were far enough away that about all we could see of the vehicles were the beams of their headlights and the red spots of tail lights.

We had been watching the lights below for only a few minutes when a car pulled over to the side of the road and stopped directly below our observation location. Shortly after stopping a small flame appeared coming out of the right-rear fender area. I guessed that maybe the brakes overheated for some reason and caught fire.

I watched to see if the fire would go out or that maybe the driver might have a fire extinguisher. Neither happened and the flame seemed to get a bit larger. I saw what was a family of four or five people evacuate the car and move to a safe distance in front of the car. We were a long way from any fire stations and this was before there were cell phones or even a 9-1-1 service in rural areas.

I ran up to the information center and used a pay phone to call the operator to report the fire. When I told her where we were she said she would notify the fire department in Laramie. As it turned out, I was the first to report the fire. With that done I returned to the observation point which was now full of people watching the real-life drama playing out before them.

When I arrived back at the overlook, the fire had spread to the back seat area of the car. With the fire lighting up the car I could see that it was a station wagon. When the people bailed-out of their car they left the headlights on which made the scene look somewhat sureal as the flames advanced to the front seat area. Now long flames were coming out of all of the windows.

About this time the Wyoming Highway Patrol arrived and stopped traffic in both directions on the highway while waiting for the fire-fighters to reach the scene. Suddenly there was a muffled explosion — WHOOMP — as a big ball of fire engulfed the back of the car. I figured that must have been the gas tank blowing up. The WHP officers couldn't do anything but keep traffic back.

The tires caught fire and blew out as flames began coming from the hood area of the car. Then an explosion, that sounded like a gunshot, went off. Then another and another and another. I was guessing that the explosions were the brake cylinders blowing up.

By now the car was totally involved with flames and the headlights still shined brightly into the darkness. It looked weird. Then the horn began to sound steadily which signaled the fact that the wiring in the care had melted shorting out the horn circuit. Finally the horn went quiet and the headlights went dark. The flames were still working on whatever was still burnable when two fire trucks finally arrived. There wasn't much left for them to put out.

Suddenly I realized that the traffic must be backed up for miles and it would be turned loose soon. We were heading in a direction that was away from the fire so I suggested that we get out on the road before all those vehicles were filling up the freeway. I'm guessing that we got at least a 15 minute head start and maybe as much as 30 minutes ahead of a very long line of vehicles of all types.

So that was the most exciting thing to happen during that trip back to Wichita.

That's the end of another story.


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