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It was a scene that ruined a lot of mornings.
Hundreds of drivers were stuck in a miles long traffic jam due to a burning tractor trailer of hay on the southbound lanes of the Florida Turnpike in Palm Beach Gardens. The incident happened around 6:30 a.m. Friday morning, just as rush hour began.
Black smoke filled the air. Flames shot up in the sky, as captured by NewsChopper 5.
The truck driver, 74-year old John Rauscher of Ontario, Canada, is counting his lucky stars. He lost everything in the fire that consumed his truck.
"I lost my wallet, my passports, everything that I had for the trip, you know?" he said.
Without his passport or credit cards, he can't fly back to Canada.
"I had two passports. I had dual citizenship. And I lost both of them," he told WPTV's Alanna Quillen.
Rauscher, who helps run a family trucking business, was transporting hay over 1,400 miles from Canada to Red Barn Feed & Supply in Loxahatchee. After driving for two days, his tire blew out just 13 miles from his destination. The sparks heated the trailer and ignited the hay.
"I noticed the fire. I tried to put it out, but I couldn't," he said.
He said a trooper yanked him out of the cab before he could grab anything.
"When that gets going, when that gets burning. It's very intense heat," said Rauscher.
Firefighters trains for mornings like this, hoping they never come.
"So you can imagine as dry as things have been all the brush fires we've been having, imagine that contained in the back of a 53 foot box trailer," said Chief Matt Haywood with the Palm Beach Gardens Fire Department. "It's hot, the weather's hot, it's very taxing. It's labor intensive work."
Despite the soaring heat in the air and from the flames, firefighters with Palm Beach County and Palm Beach Gardens fire departments didn't hesitate to get close to the burning rig. They had to keep the load of hay from fueling the flames even more.
"It's a tractor trailer so it runs on diesel, these things don't blow up like they do in the movies," said Chief Haywood.
Chief Haywood says when crews first approached, the fuel tanks were far enough from the fire.
"Where the fire was located it was away from the saddle bags, which are the saddle tanks where all the diesel fuel is carried. If they view that as an exposure, they put a hose line between it and where the fire is, kind of makes things as safe as they can possibly make it for what it is."
Firefighters spent over six hours clearing the scene. Traffic heading southbound didn't open up until almost 1 p.m.
"It smolders forever and until you can get it pulled apart and stripped down to get water into it, it's just going to smolder for hours," said Chief Haywood. "That's really what the bulk of the labor has been spent doing today."
The truck was so charred, it had to be cut into pieces before towing it away.
"And the problem that they were having was that the hay kept reigniting as they were trying to put the fire out," said Sgt. Mark Wysocky with the Florida Highway Patrol.
Crews were rotated throughout the morning to keep up with the clean up.
"A lot of hard work from all the crews involved. A lot of teamwork," said Chief Haywood.
Rauscher says he's never experienced anything like this in his 40 year career. He's more than ready to go home.
"I was going to retire. I'm 74-years old and this is a good way to go," he said. "I want go home and do a little bit of fishing."
Employees with Red Barn Feed & Supply said Rauscher will stay with family friends in the Treasure Coast until he can get back home. His son-in-law is bringing down another load of hay to replace the one lost and Rauscher will be able to ride back with him.
Red Barn said they usually order from all the way in Canada because the soil quality is better further north than in the south. The barn goes through truckloads of hay each week throughout the season.
The truckload of hay from the fire is a total loss but Red Barn said they are very glad Rauscher is OK.
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