The driver of a tanker truck that flipped, exploded and ignited a massive fire this month in Rockville Centre told police he crashed after swerving to avoid a car, according to police records.
In the hours after the crash, the truck's driver, Emanuel Thornton, of Bay Shore, was picked up by police in Bellmore after getting out of a taxi taking him home from Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside. Nassau detectives took him into custody about 90 minutes after he left the hospital but released him after questioning.
That account is taken from 11 pages of Rockville Centre Police Department records released by the village on Thursday night in response to a Freedom of Information Law request made by Newsday. Thornton was not arrested, a Nassau police spokesman said.
The Feb. 16 crash and fire destroyed one building and dumped some of the tanker's 9,200 gallons of gasoline into the Mill River. State environmental officials later said they saw no visible impact of gasoline in the river beyond a small area where they found several dead animals, including waterfowl, fish and red-eared slider turtles.
The police reports do not assign blame in the crash, and a search of a New York State courts database did not show any charges filed against Thornton, who was driving for Bay Shore-based Rocket Express Corp. Neither Thornton nor anyone from Rocket Express responded to requests for comment.
Thornton was headed east on Sunrise Highway near North Centre Avenue at 1:11 a.m. when the semi truck he was driving hit a former La-Z-Boy store, flipped and skidded across the avenue into the parking lot of Bargain Liquors and ignited, according to the reports.
Thornton escaped the Peterbilt truck, and a village police officer later found him lying face-up on the sidewalk. Thornton told police he "swerved to avoid a car that entered his lane suddenly," according to the reports.
Thornton’s semi was destroyed and the former La-Z-Boy store was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished. Seventeen local, county and state agencies, as well as volunteer fire departments, responded to the scene, and a state transportation department spokesman said this week said it was monitoring area roadways for possible repairs.
Thornton was hospitalized and released at 3:26 a.m., then took a cab home before getting out of the cab "prematurely" in Bellmore, according to the reports. Nassau police took him into custody at 5:06 a.m. after searching the area.
In an interview, Harris Correa, a retired police officer from Hempstead who saw the explosion following the crash from nearby Merrick Road, told Newsday the aftermath was "chaotic … like something out of 'Die Hard.'" Correa said he pulled over to the side of the road to help, but that the heat from the fire — a block away — was too intense.
Correa said he parked farther away and, moments later, saw Thornton run down the street and collapse. After Correa approached the truck driver, he recalled, Thornton told him over and over that he'd been trying to avoid a car.
Ronald Hornichter, who drives for Frank’s Taxi of Oceanside, picked Thornton up at the hospital for a $65 trip to Bay Shore. He said his passenger was shoeless and wearing little more than a white hospital gown.
Thornton was "in good spirits for someone who just flipped a gasoline tanker," Hornichter said.
The trip was cut short when Rockville Centre police called Hornichter and told him to return Thornton to the hospital, the cabbie recalled. Thornton told the driver to let him out near the Bellmore Road-Jerusalem Avenue intersection, about six miles from the hospital. Thornton was still wearing his hospital gown on a night when temperatures dipped to 15 degrees.
"I’ve driven trucks," Hornichter said. "People think you can stop on a dime like cars can. They don’t understand you need time to downshift, and it takes time to stop."
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show no critical violations for Rocket Express or its drivers in the last two years.
With Cecilia Dowd