Josh Thompson was stuck in traffic Saturday night on eastbound Interstate 84 just east of the Cloverdale overpass. The Idaho Transportation Department had closed off the two left lanes while crews working ahead near the Flying Wye sealed slabs of concrete on the roadway.
Thompson heard a noise behind him. He turned to look.
"It wasn't like a normal crash sound, like two cars impacting," Thompson said. "It was more like a 'boom.' I swung my head around to look and you could hear the grinding of a semi pushing what I believe was an SUV forward. We turned around just in time to see it impact another semi and the fire start."
The 11:30 p.m. crash was one of the Treasure Valley's worst in years. Four people were killed, the Ada County Coroner's Office said Monday. Mountain Home Air Force Base said the crash involved three airmen stationed at the base.
Flames shot from the crash. I-84 was closed overnight and into Sunday morning.
While Thompson was stopped, vehicles near the overpass were still moving and merging as the four eastbound lanes shrank to two. The second semi truck struck a pickup truck near the east side of the overpass and propelled the pickup onto the semi's nose, Thompson said. The semi then struck a couple of additional cars.
The drivers of several cars that weren't struck drove into the two empty lanes to the left or onto the shoulder on the right, clearing the way for other vehicles coming from behind. Thompson said he believes that kept the crash from being even worse.
The victims' names were withheld as authorities worked to identify next of kin. "The forensic identification process will be taking place over the next several days due to the conditions of the decedents," the coroner's office said.
Thompson, 33, of Boise, pulled over, and he and his brother, Matt Thompson, 24, also of Boise, got out and ran back to help the injured. They left Josh Thompson's two daughters, Carol, 15, and Alice, 9, in the car.
They brought a boy and a girl traveling with their father, the driver of the second semi truck, to safety. Their father had gotten them out of the truck, which was carrying a load of pears.
Josh Thompson carried a woman who couldn't walk. "She was screaming about her leg being in pain," he said.
Soon after, Josh Thompson saw diesel fuel leaking from a ruptured fuel tank the first semi, the one that ran into the SUV. It was loaded with apples. He said he yelled at a group of bystanders, drivers and passengers in cars behind the crash scene, who had gathered to watch.
"I got pretty loud and yelled at everybody that they needed to get back immediately because the tank had ruptured and was going to blow up," Thompson said. "I have never seen people disappear so fast."
A number of booms were caused by fuel-tank and tire explosions on the apple truck, Josh Thompson said.
The flames were even higher than many people have seen on videos posted on the Internet, which were taken after the flames died down, Matt Thompson said. "The flames went 15 to 20 feet above the overpass at their highest," he said.
The brothers, who both work for Craig Stein Beverage, a Boisedistributor, said they acted instinctively. Their father, Fred Thompson, was a captain at the Hagerman Fire Department when they were children. They said their grandfather worked for the Whitney Fire Department in Boise, and they have cousins, uncles and friends who also served as firefighters.
Josh said he grew up at the Hagerman fire station and learned about responding to emergencies from his father. Matt Thompson said he received training during four years spent in the U.S. Navy.
They said police officers, firefighters and EMTs arrived within about five minutes of the crash.
The interstate reopened shortly after noon, but the Idaho Transportation Department said the Cloverdale overpass, which was damaged by fire, would remain closed indefinitely as crews survey the extent of the damage.
"Before opening up the interstate, we did have crews inspect the bridge — above and beneath it — to ensure there was no danger of debris falling off the underside of it," ITD spokesman Jake Melder said Monday. "There wasn't a danger there, so that's what allowed us to open the interstate."
Inspectors determined that the overpass itself is unsafe for vehicles. It could remain closed for several months. Initial plans call for the damaged section to be removed and replaced.