THE out-of-control truck. The trail of destruction. The inferno. The terror and the screams.
This was Singleton’s main street on Wednesday, with the morning routine anything but, as an allegedly stolen truck collided with several cars, dragging one for up to 50 metres, before crashing into a power pole and bursting into flames shortly before 9am.
Another truck driver said stepping out of his rig was like walking into a “war zone” as the fire raged and the street was covered by the wreckage of twisted cars.
Bystanders rushed to rescue those trapped in their car as police converged on the scene.
“It was pure carnage,” Clifton Brett told the Newcastle Herald.
“He would have been doing a good 70 or 80 [km/h] and he just didn’t stop; he went from car to car and just punched through them like they weren’t there.”
What finally stopped the truck was a power pole, ending a joy ride that began in Murrurundi, more than 100km away, where it was allegedly stolen from a BP service station as its owner bought fuel.
Police deployed road spikes outside Singleton but it did not immediately stop the truck.
As the truck finally ground to a halt, its driver, Rodney Johnson, 29, allegedly attempted to run away from the burning wreck.
At least seven officers, with guns drawn, jumped on top of a shirtless Mr Johnson to make the arrest.
He was charged on Wednesday night with multiple offences.
The victims included a 67-year-old man who was suffering multiple injuries and in hospital in a critical but stable condition.
In total there were eight victims, including four who were hospitalised, and seven cars caught in the path of the truck.
Two cars were wedged either side of a popular cafe. Two more in front of a car carrier. Others were scattered down the stretch of road, following the path of the truck.
The licensee of Singleton’s Royal Hotel, Andrew Herd, said seeing the trail of destruction was “enough to send a chill down your spine”.
The George Street pub, a neighbouring heritage-listed home and a bus shelter were severely damaged.
Building debris were still attached to the burnt-out truck.
“The whole building shook,” Mr Herd said of the terrifying ordeal.
“People were just literally sitting in the gutters just crying – you couldn’t get sense out of anyone. I was around for the ’89 earthquake and it was like that. Fire and destruction everywhere.”
Mother Rachel Furniss raced across the road after hearing the noise of the truck crashing down the street.
She said school children had just been picked up from the bus stop.
“I heard the bang, bang, bang,” she said.
“I’m amazed there weren’t more people hurt … I’m surprised the driver survived.
“There could have been many more people there – the kids had only been there five minutes before.”
Gabrielle Brown saw the destruction and began to evacuate as a fuel tanker was parked nearby.
“I was scared there was going to be a massive explosion,” she said. “It still really hasn't sunk in yet, how close to danger we actually were.”
Trail of destruction a daunting scene
POLICE are set to comb over their own response in the wake of a truck causing a trail of destruction, before bursting into a fireball and leaving one man with critical injuries, on Singleton’s main street.
The investigation comes as police charged the 29-year-old driver, Rodney Johnson, with multiple offences overnight.
Those offences include two counts of police pursuit (Skye’s Law), steal vehicle, two counts of use weapon to avoid arrest, two counts assault police, resist arrest and two counts of malicious damage. Skye’s Law alone carries a maximum penalty of three years’ jail and five years for a repeat offence.
Police launched a critical incident investigation to examine the response of authorities in the lead-up to truck crash, which is protocol when a member of the public is injured or dies during the course of a police operation.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Hunter Valley acting commander Inspector Robert Post batted away questions about the effectiveness of road spikes during a short pursuit at Singleton Heights, which shredded some of the truck’s tyres.
Inspector Post said the driver was allegedly able to travel at least two kilometres after spikes were deployed.
The driver’s behaviour was described by police as “reckless” and “erratic” as he made his way down the highway, with the truck allegedly stolen from the BP service station at Murrurundi.
The truck – which was refuelling at the time it was allegedly stolen about 7.30am – was loaded mushroom compost and originally bound for Tamworth.
At least one other car collided with the truck near Murrurundi.
Inspector Post said the destruction that unfolded on George Street was overwhelming for authorities.
“It was quite a daunting scene for our first responders,” he said. “It took quite a while to get under control.”
Ambulance NSW Inspector Luke Wiseman said Singleton residents were in shock after the incident.
Two rescue helicopters were dispatched to Singleton, with four people taken to hospital.
One man, 67, was in a critical but stable condition in John Hunter Hospital on Wednesday night.
“It seems that the people involved were just going about their usual morning business, having coffee along the main street when this accident happened out of nowhere,” Inspector Wiseman said. “It’s always going to be tough dealing with a scene like this. The scale and the suddenness of the incident and the fact that it has happened in a smaller community means a lot of people are in shock, so it was a challenging scene.”
Investigators remained on the scene overnight as debris started to be cleared.
Authorities hoped to have the road open, with most businesses to resume normal trade on Thursday. Damaged buildings were still being assessed for their safety as there was concern a handful could be unstable.
Police appealed for witnesses who saw the truck between Murrurundi and Singleton to phone Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.