Traveling through the way to an interview with Sugar Bear star Megan Herbert on Thursday afternoon, I spotted traffic slowing on I-40 westbound near Crystal Hill in North Little Rock.
Then, I saw the thickening and rising cloud of black smoke. It reminded me of photos I've seen of the bombed Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
I pulled to a stop about 100 yards away. Good thing I left in plenty of time. By the smoke, I knew a vehicle, containing lots of gas and oil and flammable material, was on fire.
Then I saw the flames rising, appearing to shoot across the interstate.
Traffic stopped both directions.
Where are fire trucks and the emergency vehicles, I thought. Then, I heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights in my rear view mirror. By happenstance, I was ahead of them on the scene. I had made a stop before getting on the interstate. Thank God, I said, I could have been in the middle of this. A bleacher view was enough.
There were a dozen or so vehicles ahead of me. About a half-dozen pulled on the side of the interstate to allow the fire trucks, emergency vehicles and law enforcement officials to arrive.
The pillar of smoke grew higher, sometimes resembling a mushroom cloud.
After putting the car into park and hoping that there was not be an second explosion to follow the one moments before my car had arrived in the area, the journalist in me kicked in. Better tweet this, I thought: "Fire alongside I-40 WB. Traffic backed up. Smoke looks like Pearl Harbor." Checking Twitter, I realized how close I was to the actual accident. My tweet was one of the first from the scene. I beat the major news organizations by three to five minutes.
I took photos with my phone.
Just as the professionals arrived and set up a perimeter, I saw a group of individuals rush to pull something along the pavement away from the flames. I thought it might be debris. I later learned those brave volunteers were trying to pull the driver away from the fire and his vehicle.
I saw some officials waved toward the sky. In an instance, about 50 yards in front of me, a Med-Flight helicopter landed on a part of the interstate that was cleared. Ambulances and EMTs had been on the scene several minutes before. About 25 minutes passed before a stretcher was loaded onto the helicopter. It seemed like a long time for such an emergency situation, I thought. The body language of the workers and bystanders indicated this wasn't good. The driver later died.
The random group of motorists close to the scene just watched with curiosity, shock and a sense of forboding. A man in a medical uniform walked past my vehicle and approached the officers, apparently offering assistance. He was turned back in short order. Several other volunteers seemed to offer help. There was nothing to be done that the professionals couldn't handle.
After the helicopter left and the fire fighters got the blaze and smoke under control, an officer directed tose of us nearby to make a giant U-turn and head in the other direction. We found a dirt path up a hill to a road that enabled us to reach an alternative route.
The interstate was going to be closed for awhile, I figured, especially if flames had blazed on the asphalt. I didn't know at the time the semi had hit a concete pillar on an overpass and had exploded and threatening the stability of the entire overpass.
While traveling eastbound later, I experienced major gridlock on almost all side streets and roads that connected to the interstate.
What a mess.
I, and many, many others were incovenienced. But that was mitigated by the fact many of us close to the scene realized that this was a matter of life and death.
I was impressed with how well the police, the state troopers, the EMTs and the fire fighters, worked smoothly in sync in a difficult emergency situation. I was impressed with how regular folks emerged from their cars and businesses in the neighborhood to offer help. A horrible situation was handled professionally.
The story ended badly. In the midst of tragedy, I witnessed a lot of people doing good.