ATLAS - An out-of-control tri-axle dump truck hauling 23 tons of culm created one of the most spectacular crashes ever witnessed locally Wednesday morning when it tipped over and skidded into the parking lot of an auto parts store and garage along Route 61.

By the time the truck came to a stop, six parked vehicles had been damaged, including a van that was crushed between the dump truck and the parts store building. Also, the impact knocked down the front door and smashed out the large window at Greco Service Station and threw glass and several feet of culm across the store, leaving quarts of oil and some other products on display nearly buried in the black coal dirt.

The driver of the truck was even ejected from his careening truck, but walked away without life-threatening injuries.

"It's lucky nobody was killed" was a repeated phrase while emergency responders and massive tow trucks worked throughout much of the day to clean up the wreckage. That applied in particular to the driver, Ronald M. Dowd, 44, of Drums.

"He was very lucky," said Mount Carmel Township Police Chief Brian Hollenbush, who is heading the investigation. "If he wasn't ejected, he probably would have died."

Hollenbush said the cab was severely damaged in the crash, probably from hitting the building, and the roof of the truck was pushed to the back of the cab, crushing the steering wheel and driver's seat.

How it happened

Mount Carmel Township police said Dowd, a private contractor, was hauling culm for local coal company owner Vince Guarna, of Mount Carmel Township, at 9:20 a.m. and was descending Mid-Valley Highway. He failed to make a left turn into a coal processing plant owned by Mallard Construction approximately one-eighth of a mile east of the intersection with Route 61. Dowd told police he missed a downshift and his truck continued down the hill.

He wasn't able to stop for a stop sign at the intersection near the Friendly Choice Food Mart and apparently tried to steer to the right onto Route 61, police said. His rig crossed the northbound lane and tipped onto its driver's side by the time it reached the southbound lane, where gouges could be seen in the blacktop.

The truck slid across the highway and into the adjacent parts store parking lot, where it slammed into a parts delivery pickup truck parked in front of the building and a Dodge Caravan beside the pickup. The dump truck also struck the northern end of the building and sprayed culm as high as the second floor when it slammed through a cinder block retaining wall to the right of the building and partially toppled over an embankment to a dirt parking area below. The cab landed on and crushed a green van - which had been dropped off for brake service - in the lower parking lot while the bed of the large truck rested on top of the wall, still in the upper parking lot. The truck and flying debris caused damage to three other customer vehicles parked in the lower lot.

The top floor of the two-story business, which is across the Viaduct from Mount Carmel, also sustained extensive damage and the crash knocked out power in the immediate area.

Driver in 'fair' condition

Dowd was initially treated by an off-duty paramedic before receiving additional treatment for a shoulder injury and cuts to his face. He was transported by AREA Services ambulance to Geisinger Medical Center, Danville, where he was listed Wednesday evening in fair condition, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

The chief, who wasn't sure how fast the truck was traveling when it crashed, said charges are pending.

The delivery truck, owned by Cal's Tire and Auto Service, Tamaqua, was totaled. The Dodge Caravan was, too; it looked as if it had been in a crusher when it was lifted from the lot and onto a flatbed with a tow-truck crane.

'Bomb exploded'

Cal's Tire delivery man John Schock, 77, of Tuscarora, said he arrived at Greco's about 15 minutes before the accident to get an order. Schock said he was standing at the counter talking when the crash occurred.

"I didn't know what happened," he said. "I thought a bomb exploded. If I had been in that delivery truck, I would have been killed."

Schock did suffer a cut on his nose from the storefront glass, but did not require medical attention.

One of the four employees at Greco's, who preferred not to be identified, described the accident as "shocking."

"I was behind the counter talking when I looked up and saw the coal truck skidding across the road into our building," one man said. "I called 911 and then went outside to make sure everyone was OK, but the driver was already out of the cab."

'Scared, shaken up'

Ed Darcangelo, of Den-Mar Gardens, who watched the clean-up, said his daughter, Vanessa Darcangelo, 28, of Kulpmont, had just missed being hit by the tri-axle while it descended Mid-Valley Highway.

He said his daughter was stopped at the stop sign at Friendly Choice Food Mart and had just turned right onto Route 61 when the truck came flying through the intersection. "She told me the truck missed her vehicle by a foot," he said.

"She was definitely scared and shaken up by the crash," he said. "A couple seconds later, she would have been killed."

Deb Meredith, of Wilburton, manager of the Friendly Choice, said she didn't see the accident, but heard a "big bang."

"It definitely scared me," she said. "Thank God nobody was in any of those vehicles that got hit by the truck."

Ed Greco and his brother, Tony Greco, who operate Preferred Warehouse on the top floor of the business and Greco's on the bottom floor, were grateful nobody was seriously injured.

Ed Greco said he didn't actually see the accident, but recalled culm coming through the front window.

Police said the green van crushed by the tri-axle truck is owned by Lori Knopp, of Mount Carmel. A Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck damaged by debris is registered to Tom Hill, of Oak Ridge Estates, and a black Chevrolet S-10 Blazer hit with debris belongs to Janet Watkins, of Atlas. A Ford F-150 pickup truck, also damaged by debris, belongs to Randy Wright, of Ashland.

The Greco brothers, who both reside in Marion Heights, said the business is insured.

Some other crashes have occurred at the 56-year-old business at 11638 state Route 61 over the years, but nothing quite like Wednesday's accident.

Major cleanup

The delivery truck from Cal's and the Dodge Caravan owned by Greco's were the first vehicles towed from the scene. Tow trucks from Dave's Auto Body of Shady Acres and Sunbury Motors removed the tri-axle truck from the wall. The truck was then towed to Dave's Auto Body.

The green van was towed by Jeff's Auto Body and Recycling on Snydertown Road.

Northumberland County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) officials and Northridge Group Inc., Northumberland, an environmental response unit contracted by the county, responded to siphon approximately 25 to 30 gallons of diesel fuel from the tri-axle. Approximately 75 gallons spilled.

Under the direction of county EMA director Steve Jeffery, Northridge employees also removed the spilled culm. Material remaining in the tri-axle truck was removed with a payloader by a Mount Carmel Township street department worker before the vehicle was moved.

Jeffery said the culm, contaminated from the accident, will be transported to a landfill.

Fire police re-directed southbound traffic on Route 61 near the scene, while motorists traveling north on Route 61 over the Viaduct had to turn right and go up the Mid-Valley Highway or veer right into Diamondtown.

Both lanes of the highway were reported open by PennDOT at 2:30 p.m. The scene was cleared by authorities at 4:30 p.m.

Also assisting were Mount Carmel Township Patrolmen Daniel Politza, Brian Carnuccio and Patrick McAndrew, Mount Carmel and Conyngham Township police, firefighters from Strong, Atlas and Mount Carmel, and Mount Carmel Area Rescue Squad. PPL Electric Utilities restored power to the area shortly after 1 p.m.