A pile of mattresses on top of a cargo van sprang loose onto the New Jersey Turnpike Wednesday afternoon, forcing a tanker truck driver to swerve so suddenly that his truck flipped over a guardrail and instantly burst into flames, killing him, authorities and witnesses say.
The fire on the northbound side of exit 15W in Kearny sent thick black smoke into the air that was visible from New York City as firefighters worked to douse the flames that raged around the charred carcass of the truck. Delays were heavy on both sides of the highway through the evening rush.
A dashboard camera equipped on another truck captured the crash as the tanker truck driver swerved to avoid hitting an SUV that cut in front of him, according to Kevin Hauer, the witness with the dash cam footage.
Hauer, a truck driver from Michigan, told NBC 4 New York he saw a cargo van carrying four mattresses on top about 10 to 15 miles before the crash.
Suddenly, "I saw the mattresses up ahead, like it scattered into the lanes," he said.
A few cars swerved to try to avoid the mattresses, the dash cam video shows.
"It looked like the SUV before the tanker hit his brakes and cut in front of the tanker," Hauer said. "The tanker, of course, tried not to hit him, and it looked like he was going over to the left and he corrected -- but gravity took over and brought him over right onto the guardrail."
"It blew up instantly," he said, still shaken hours after the crash.
"Whether he intended to or not, he saved those people in front of him, lives. He gave up his own, I'm sure he didn't want to do that, but those people in that car in front of him, they could be gone," Hauer said.
The dash cam video shows Hauer stopping behind the tanker after it crashed and running out to try to get to the driver.
"I wanted to get the guy out, but it being a tanker and as big as the explosion was -- the heat was so intense," he said. "I tried a second time, I went all the way over to the wall and went up and I got a good look at the cab and whatever was there was already gone."
Hauer said the horrifying image remains with him.
"I just think about going home to my kids. It's rough," he said.
The driver, who was pronounced dead at the scene, has not been identified, and state police say a medical examination is pending.
Authorities said the driver of the Honda CRV involved in the accident with the tanker before it flipped over the guardrail was OK. It's not known what kind of fuel the tanker was carrying.
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The investigation into the crash was expected to tie up the northbound lanes of the turnpike through the night, and it could impact the morning impact Thursday.