THE 29-year-old man who allegedly drove a stolen truck which ploughed into parked cars and burst into flames, injuring a number of people in NSW’s Hunter Region today, is understood to have been under the influence of drugs.
The drama unfolded after a 29-year-old man allegedly stole the truck from the BP service station at Murrurundi at 7.30am, while the owner was paying for fuel.
Police said officers spotted the truck being driven erratically south along the New England Hwy, through Muswellbrook and towards Singleton, in the NSW Hunter Region.
A pursuit was not initiated, police said, but as the truck approached the town, officers deployed road spikes in an attempt to stop the vehicle.
The truck continued into George St where it caught fire after crashing into several vehicles and buildings, injuring a number of people about 8.45am today.
A man is in hospital fighting for his life and at least four others are seriously injured after a fireball erupted during the five-vehicle collision, with terrified witnesses jumping from the path of the out-of-control truck.
It is understood the man — who suffered some injuries in the crash and was taken to Singleton Hospital for treatment — was driving under the influence of drugs.
He has since been released from hospital and is being interviewed by police.
Resident chef at the Royal Hotel in Singleton, Jack, told The Daily Telegraph that he came downstairs at about 9am to start his shift when he heard “a big bang and crash” and went outside to investigate.
“I walked out the front to the top veranda and there was a truck to my left-hand side on fire,” he said. “There was still dust everywhere, the powerlines were still swinging in the air and all the people were just screaming— it was just chaos everywhere.”
“I looked up to my left and there were cars all crumpled up, black smoke everywhere— and hearing all the screaming and people cowering everywhere: it was horrible.”
Manager of the Horse and Jockey Hotel Daniel Storey said he was on the phone when he heard the screech of tyres outside.
The publican said the experience had shaken him, and that he had roamed around the demolished street expecting to find “someone torn in half” due to the ferocity of the crash.
Storey witnessed the truck took out a bus shelter, which had been packed to the brim with Hunter Valley Grammar School children only an hour before the incident.
Mayor of Singleton Sue Moore said the usually quiet town was in shock following the carnage.
“Everyone’s absolutely gobsmacked at the devastation this has caused,” Cr Moore said. “Especially as it happened on the New England Highway which runs through the middle of our town.”
“As bad as it was, it could have been far worse,” Cr Moore said. “Several people are seriously injured and a lot of property is damaged— so my thoughts are with those people affected and just hoping they recover quickly.”
Cr Moore wouldn’t comment on whether or the live stream was a good or bad thing, but said that it gave the community access to view how brave witnesses and those affected reacted to the situation.
“The person who videoed has given us the opportunity to see the heroic people involved, the other motorists responding before emergency services had arrived— they all did a fantastic job from what I can see.”
Cr Moore said this accident reinforced the need for a bypass which would take heavy vehicles out of the middle of town.
“It just reiterates the need for the bypass,” Cr Moore said. “We have a route identified but we are still working through the process that we need to undertake to get it done.”
Seven ambulances responded on the ground along with NSW Ambulance and Westpac rescue helicopter and the NSW Ambulance and Toll rescue helicopter.
NSW Ambulance Inspector Luke Wiseman said eight patients were assessed at the scene and five were taken to hospital.
“The first ambulance arrived at 8.55am to a chaotic scene involving a number of quite distressed people,” Mr Wiseman said.
The patients included a 67-year-old man with head, chest and leg injuries, who was flown to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, and who remained there in a critical condition this afternoon.
A 62-year-old woman with pelvic and hip injuries was also flown to John Hunter Hospital in a stable condition, while a 64-year-old man with chest, neck and back pain was taken by ambulance to John Hunter Hospital in a stable condition.
Leon Claassens was driving to work when he witnessed the carnage and “narrowly avoided” being hit himself.
Mr Claassens told The Daily Telegraph he saw panicked pedestrians “jumping out of a gazebo” to avoid the truck.
“It was terrifying ... he took out a gazebo. The people standing there were so lucky they didn’t get hit,” he said.
“I was in a line of stopped cars and the next thing I knew I saw the truck driving something like 90km/h, taking out three cars.”
Pictures on social media show a huge plume of black smoke and burning cars in the street along with debris strewn across the road.
Another witness, Meri Basci, said: “He was so fast, he missed me and a few other cars in a millisecond. I am still in shock.”
“The truck, it wiped out the corner of the building then old mate jumped out and tried to steal another truck. Cops got him,” he commented.
A critical incident team from Port Stephens Local Area Command has been called in to lead an inquiry.
Meanwhile, another fiery truck crash on a bridge on the Hume Hwy in the NSW Southern Highlands sparked a grass fire in the valley below, and closed the road as engineers checked the integrity of the bridge.
Emergency services were called to the Wingecarribee Bridge near Berrima about 9am following reports the prime mover had gone up in flames, police said.
Nine RFS crews extinguished the blaze, which completely destroyed the truck and left the driver, in his 60s, with non-life-threatening injuries.
The fire also spread to the ground below after burning debris from the truck rained down, RFS Inspector Ben Shepherd told AAP.
The incident damaged the bridge over the Wingecarribee River and an engineer was called to determine the extent of the harm and whether bridge was structurally sound, a spokeswoman for the Transport Management Centre told AAP.
It’s uncertain if it will be safe for the bridge to reopen today, the spokeswoman said.
Northbound lanes of the Hume Highway remain closed as the clean-up operation and investigation continues.