"Whole road engulfed in flames!" Ethanol tanker erupts following collision on Highway 33

HORICON --  A tanker truck carrying ethanol erupted in a huge ball of flames after colliding with a car on a highway in Dodge County Thursday morning, July 16th. It led to a lengthy closure of Highway 33 (closed for about nine-and-a-half hours).

Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt says flames reached 20 to 40 feet in the air after the tanker rolled over on Highway 33 and caught fire about 8:30 a.m. Thursday near Horicon.

Sheriff's officials say an initial investigation has revealed 20-year-old Robert Babiak of Horicon was operating a vehicle, headed westbound on Highway 33.

56-year-old Carl Wintheiser of Oconomowoc was operating the semi, which had a full load of ethanol. The semi was headed east on Highway 33.

Babiak's vehicle apparently crossed the center line and headed into oncoming eastbound traffic, and then struck the semi. The semi spun in a counter-clockwise direction and overturned before erupting in flames.

The car landed about 200 feet down the road, but did not ignite. Babiak had to be extricated from the vehicle.

Wintheiser escaped the burning tanker with minor injuries. Schmidt says Babiak was seriously injured and taken by Flight for Life to the hospital.

"The contents of the tanker was ethanol," Sheriff Schmidt said.

"I was at my desk and all of a sudden I heard some banging. It was probably the tires exploding on the tractor from the fire," Greg Bales said.

"It's certainly concerning when you can see smoke pluming from one of our highways," Sheriff Schmidt said.

Authorities were letting the ethanol burn out, instead of extinguishing the flames.

"We would allow the ethanol to burn off the truck and that way, it didn't create another problem with fuel that we would have to deal with," Horicon Fire Chief Jim Bandsma said.

Bandsma estimates that the fire reached the neighborhood of 2,500 degrees -- enough heat to burn metal onto what he describes as a soft, compromised road surface.

The fire closed a two-to-three-mile section of Highway 33 in both directions. Repairs had to be made to the roadwway.

"We're very thankful at this point that there weren't more serious injuries," Sheriff Schmidt said.

As of about 6:30 p.m., Dodge County Sheriff's officials said Highway 33 was open.