On one of my trips, to my home town in Kansas, I stopped at a rest area
located at exit 323 near the highest point on Interstate 80. The sun had just
gone down, however, there was enough light in the sky to see the very large bust of Abraham
Lincoln that looks over the freeway below.
After looking at the sculpture and visiting the information center, I went to an observation
area that overlooks the I-80 freeway below. By this time, darkness had completely overtaken
the rest area I looked down on the lights of the cars on the highway. The vehicles were far
enough away that about all I could see of the vehicles were the beams of their headlights and
the red spots of tail lights.
I had been watching the lights below for only a few minutes when a car pulled over to the
side of the road and stopped directly below our observation location. Shortly after stopping
a small flame appeared coming out of the right-rear fender area. I guessed that maybe the brakes
overheated for some reason and caught fire.
I watched to see if the fire would go out or that maybe the driver might have a fire extinguisher.
Neither happened and the flame seemed to get a bit larger. I saw what was a family of four or
five people evacuate the car and move to a safe distance in front of the car. We were a long
way from any fire stations and this was before there were cell phones or even a 9-1-1 service
in rural areas.
I ran up to the information center and used a pay phone to call the operator to report the
fire. When I told her where we were she said she would notify the fire department in Laramie.
As it turned out, I was the first to report the fire. With that done I returned to the observation
point which was now full of people watching the real-life drama playing out before them.
When I arrived back at the overlook, the fire had spread to the back seat area of the car.
With the fire lighting up the car I could see that it was a station wagon. When the people bailed-out
of their car they left the headlights on which made the scene look somewhat surreal as the flames
advanced to the front seat area. Now long flames were coming out of all of the windows.
About this time the Wyoming Highway Patrol arrived and stopped traffic in both directions
on the highway while waiting for the fire-fighters to reach the scene. Suddenly there was a
muffled explosion WHOOMP as a big ball of fire engulfed the back of the car. I
figured that must have been the gas tank blowing up. The WHP officers couldn't do anything but
keep traffic back.
The tires caught fire and blew out as flames began coming from the hood area of the car.
Then an explosion, that sounded like a gunshot, went off. Then another and another and another.
I was guessing that the explosions were the brake cylinders blowing up.
By now the car was totally involved with flames and the headlights still shined brightly
into the darkness. It looked weird. Then the horn began to sound steadily which signaled the
fact that the wiring in the care had melted shorting out the horn circuit. Finally the horn
went quiet and the headlights went dark. The flames were still working on whatever was still
burnable when two fire trucks finally arrived. There wasn't much left for them to put out.
Suddenly I realized that the traffic must be backed up for miles and it would be turned
loose soon. We were heading in a direction that was away from the fire so I suggested that we
get out on the road before all those vehicles were filling up the freeway. I'm guessing that
we got at least a 15 minute head start and maybe as much as 30 minutes ahead of a very long
line of vehicles of all types.
So that was the most exciting thing to happen during that trip back to Wichita.