It seemed like a scene from a big budget action movie - a runaway tractor-trailer rig speeding down a steep highway pass, ramming through a concrete barrier, bursting into flames and crashing into oncoming traffic.
But as two Mullan, Idaho, women watched the scene unfold before them, they knew it was real.
“I said ‘Please, Lord God, don’t let us die’ and I put my head down,” said Peggy Zingler, 34. “There was no place to run.”
In an amazing twist of luck, none of the three people involved in the spectacular collision on Fourth of July Pass Monday was injured.
“It’s one of the most bizarre wrecks I’ve seen,” said. Cpl. Rick Field, an ISP officer of eight years.
At about 5:40 p.m. Monday, Thomas W. Rhian, 49, of Thedford, Neb., was driving a truck full of fresh meat west on Interstate 90. Among the cargo - ox tails to be used as a delicacy in Japan.
At the top of the pass, Rhian stopped the rig to clean headlights caked with road grime. Rhian told police that as he stepped out of the vehicle, he slipped and fell.
As he lay there, the semitruck began rolling down the west side of the pass. Rhian had left the truck in neutral and had forgotten to set the parking brake, Field said.
The truck rolled down the pass for about one and a half miles, swerving back and forth in the westbound lanes, before crashing through the median into the eastbound lanes.
Although Field said he’s seen vehicles ride up over the cement medians, “I’ve never seen anything go through those barriers,” he said. “It just obliterated that thing, like dynamite going off.”
The trailer portion of the semitruck then flipped over on top of the median, sliding down the barrier for about 150 feet, as the tractor continued rolling down the eastbound lanes toward on-coming traffic, Field said.
The trailer then fell off the median and continued sliding sideways down the pass, stretching across both lanes of traffic.
Melissa M. Arave, 33, was driving her new 1996 Plymouth Breeze with friend Zingler in the passenger seat. The two had spent the day in Coeur d’Alene and were on their way home when they spotted the semitruck swerving ahead of them. They watched as the big rig jumped the median and rushed toward them, spewing sparks and flames.
Arave slammed on her brakes and yanked back the emergency brake.
“It was like the movie ‘Twister,”’ Zingler said. “It seemed like it took an eternity. I was thinking, ‘We’re dying.”’
The enormous rig rammed into their car and the semitruck’s fuel tank broke loose, slid down the hill and spilled about 80 gallons of diesel fuel. Sparks ignited the fuel that spilled on Arave’s car.
Arave reached up and felt the hot windshield. “She yelled ‘Get out, it’s going to explode,”’ Zingler said.
The two women scrambled through smoke and flames to safety.
Meanwhile, Rhian, who had been running after his wayward semitruck, hitched a ride down to the wreckage.
“He was just totally in shock. He thought he had killed somebody,” Field said.
Everyone was OK. Both eastbound lanes were blocked for about four hours before traffic was eventually diverted into one of the westbound lanes.
Rhian was cited for failing to safely park the truck. Zingler and Arave said they got little sleep Monday night.
“I can’t believe we’re alive,” Zingler said Tuesday.
Field said he’s had several people tell him, “You couldn’t have written a movie scene that would have been more spectacular.”
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