Albert Lea firefighters douse a fire on the tractor of a tractor-trailer that on Wednesday left the northbound Interstate 35 overpass over East Main Street and ended up in a ditch. Albert Lea Tribune

Archived Story

Hoppe: ‘I think this is going to hurt’

Published 6:53pm Saturday, September 8, 2012

Trucker recounts his harrowing crash over an interstate guard rail

ALBERT LEA — The right front tire on James Hoppe’s big rig truck popped right as it drove onto the Interstate 35 overpass. From the northbound left lane, the 80,000-pound vehicle instantly veered right.

He began to countersteer as he approached the concrete guardrail of the overpass over East Main Street. He thought: “I think this is going to hurt.”

He prepared to bust through the guardrail on the bridge, but the 2005 Freightliner didn’t break through. Instead, it struck the guardrail at a 60-degree angle. Hoppe hit his head on the overhead console. As he continued to countersteer, the truck glanced off the guardrail a few times as he still moved northbound.

When the tractor struck the guardrail, the trailer, filled with concrete sand headed for Wells Concrete Ready Mix, disconnected, taking the fifth-wheel plate with it. The trailer flew up and over the guard rail, landing upside down near some trees on the hill formed beside the overpass.

Once the tractor reached the end of the guardrail, Hoppe stopped countersteering so that it would leave the freeway and head down the hill — and so it wouldn’t roll. As he headed down the hill, he noticed flames.

The front axle had been pushed back three feet into the fuel tank. The driver side tank was empty, but the passenger side tank was damaged.

Sparks from the rim of the wheel caught the diesel fuel on fire. Also a tank with hydraulic fluid busted open, spilling on the grass and helping quickly light the grass on fire.

Hoppe prepared to get out. Suddenly, he noticed his wallet was missing. It was on the dash. He hopped up and grabbed it and scurried away from the burning big rig.

A bunch of people sitting on picnic tables at Trail’s Travel Center saw it all and called 911. Drivers pulled off the freeway to help. One person dabbed blood out of Hoppe’s eyes and gave him water. Another provided a blanket to sit on.

“Everyone was so nice and helpful, so calm,” Hoppe said.

The Minnesota State Patrol’s incident report released to the media didn’t exactly mesh with Hoppe’s description of events. The State Patrol said Hoppe had “no apparent injury.”

Actually, the 39-year-old man had a gash on his head from hitting the console. It required 10 staples to close the wound. He has a few scratches, too, and his shoulders remain stiff from cranking the wheel. And there are headaches.

Hoppe said he is glad he is alive and thankful no other vehicles were struck by his truck. He said he is fortunate no car was in the right lane on the overpass when his tire blew. He was surprised the guardrail held in place.

He is thankful the trailer busted loose because it allowed him to steer the truck safely into the grass. And he is thankful it landed away from the freeway and the city street. He was surprised it didn’t even slide down the hill onto Main.

Hoppe drives from Dellman Trucking in Wells. The truck, he said, is insured, though it would be nice to have it around during harvest season.

Most of all, he was glad to return to his home in Delavan to see his children. He was happy to see the woman to whom he is engaged.

When he was teenage, he used to drive aggressively, doing Batman slides on gravel roads and such. He said nowadays he makes a living driving safely, especially up and down interstates 35 and 90, but when danger happens, he is able to remain calm at the wheel and instinctively react.

“I know what to do when a crash situation occurs thanks to my years of driving and to the days of my youth,” he said. “As soon as I heard that bang, I knew what was going to happen. I had to stay relaxed.”

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