Fatal wreck threatened Augusta water supply

Another accident reported Friday morning at same location

When a flaming truck, leaking diesel fuel, rammed through an Interstate 20 guardrail and plunged into the Augusta Canal early Friday, it did more than kill its driver and slow morning traffic.

It threatened Au­gusta’s water supply.

“We did shut down our turbines and are now pumping directly from the river,” Augusta Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier said.

The accident occurred about 12:30 a.m. when an 18-wheeler loaded with lumber struck the guardrail and flipped into the canal.

Chief Deputy Coroner Mark Bowen identified the driver as Benjamin Cunningham, 54, of Bainbridge, Ga., whose body was recovered by divers about five hours after the accident. An autopsy is scheduled.

The accident scene, which spawned a second, less-severe accident during morning rush hour, is just upstream from the city’s pumping station, where canal water is diverted to Augusta’s High­land Avenue treatment plant, which provides city drinking water.

The crash contaminated the canal with fuel and spilled the truck’s cargo of treated lumber.

Dealing with a canal water
incident was planned for long ago, when the city launched a three-year, $63 million water system expansion that was completed in 2009. The upgrades included adding a pair of 2,500-horsepower diesel pumps that could be
used in emergencies to extract water directly from the Savannah River in the event of an accident that renders the canal’s flow unusable.

Those pumps were activated immediately after Friday’s accident, so there was no interruption in the flow of potable water to treatment facilities and Utilities Department customers, Wiedmeier said.

“They will be watching to see how long it takes to get everything cleaned up, and then see how long the fuel takes to get past the
pumping station,” Wiedmeier said.

The canal, built in 1845 and enlarged 30 years later, has provided city water since the late 1800s. In addition to tapping the canal for drinking water, the canal’s powerful flow turns hydromechanical pumps that move the water to the Highland Avenue plant without the use of electricity or diesel power. That saves the city about $1 million a year in energy costs.

Even before the recent expansion, the city maintained emergency pumps that could draw water from the river, but they were limited to 16 million gallons per day. The current system, designed to accommodate the city’s water needs through 2050, can pump as much as 60 million gallons per day from either the canal or the river.

Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Scott Gay said it has not been determined what caused the driver to lose control of the 18-wheeler.

Authorities believe the driver rode the guardrail until it gave way, causing the cab portion to flip and the diesel tank to rupture and explode. The trailer continued traveling on the bridge until a second portion of the guardrail gave way, sending the trailer off the bridge and on top of the other portion, Gay said.

It did not appear any other vehicles were involved. Emergency responders searched the water for any sign another vehicle might have been sent over in the accident.

“We had to make sure there wasn’t another car because the wreckage was so severe,” Gay said. “It looked like a bomb had gone off.”

The Transporta­tion Depart­ment also sent a crew out to make sure the bridge was safe for travelers.

Gay said he does not anticipate the wreck will hinder the surge in holiday traffic after the wreckage has been cleared.