Witness says tanker driver was speeding before fatal crash

| Monday, February 14, 2005

Officials are investigating whether to file charges against the driver of a Florida fuel tanker that rolled over and exploded, killing four people Friday. The trucker reportedly had more than 10 driving violations in three states in the past five years.

As the investigation continues, families from New Jersey to Florida are waiting for DNA tests to confirm the identities of the victims from the fiery crash near Miami Friday night, Feb. 12. The driver of the tanker was reported by area media to be in fair condition at a nearby hospital.

The incident happened at about 10:30 p.m. Friday on an entrance ramp from Interstate 595 to the Florida Turnpike. A Floval Oil Co. fuel tanker driven by Flavio F. Santisteban apparently miscalculated the ramp, lost control and overturned, landing on a passenger car that was in the right-hand lane of the two-lane ramp, according to reports from the Florida Highway Patrol.

The fire burned so hot that neither the victims nor their car could be identified. Officials are waiting on DNA tests to confirm that the victims are four people who have since been reported missing by their families. Officials said the investigation could take 60 to 90 days to complete.

When Land Line called the offices of Floval Oil Co. on Monday to inquire about the incident, a woman who spoke with a very heavy accent said “person in charge not here” and hung up.

The Miami Herald reported that Oscar Blanco, a dispatcher at Floval Oil Co., said Saturday that the 33-year-old trucker from Hialeah, FL, had been driving for the company for about 18 months and that he had undergone “rigorous training” and had a clean driving record.

“He’s been a great driver, no accidents, no tickets, nothing,” Blanco told the Herald Saturday afternoon.

However, The Associated Press, the Herald and other area media reported otherwise.

Records show that Santisteban has had 11 driving citations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties since 2002. Most of those were dismissed, except for two seat-belt violations and a ticket for driving 80 mph in a 55-mph zone in Davie, FL, in 2003. Most recently, he was stopped Dec. 4, 2004, for speeding. Santisteban pleaded not guilty and has a hearing set for next month.

Other records show Santisteban has had 10 driving violations in three different states during the past five years, including being fined for failing to stay in his driving lane in 1999 and being cited for disobeying traffic signals in 2000.

According to reports in the Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel, the tanker, which had just loaded up Friday with 9,000 gallons of fuel at Port Everglades, left more than 30 feet of skid marks before flipping onto its left side and landing on top of the car. The two vehicles slid another 30 or 40 feet, with sparks flying.

Eventually a guardrail stopped the vehicles with the car pinned between the tanker and guardrail on the left side of the road. The tanker then burst into flames.

“All there was in the car were ashes,” Lt. Pat Santangelo, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol told the Herald when he described the intensity of the blaze. “Aluminum flowed down the exit ramp.”

Davie Fire-Rescue Chief Fire Marshal Bob Madge told the Herald the tanker fire was burning at temperatures between 1,200 and 2,200 degrees, twice as hot as a typical house fire. All that was left of the tanker were its frame and rims.

“It was hot enough that it melted asphalt and metal into liquid,” Madge said.

There were four people in the car, one of whom witnesses reported escaped in flames and ran and jumped into a nearby pond. His body was later recovered from the water. He was believed to be Alan Klein, 52, of southern New Jersey. It is believed the other three victims in the car were Klein’s wife, Debbie Klein, 49; his sister, Gloria Halpern, 56, of Potomac, MD; and another relative, Anita Epstein, 83, of Coconut Creek, FL.

Halpern was the mother of Washington Capitals hockey star Jeff Halpern and had been in South Florida to look after her ill father, who was also the father of Alan Klein.

As of press time, no charges had been filed, but at least one witness told police that the trucker had been speeding and cut her off in traffic just before the wreck. Maria Thompson of Boca Raton, FL, said she was in the right lane of the ramp when the tanker cut her off.

“The guy was speeding” Thomson told the Sun Sentinel. “He was going so fast that he keeled over. There was oil everywhere and then it just exploded.”

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