The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Fire destroys rig on Thompson Pass

Anchorage couple’s Explorer burst into flames


Steve Revis Photo

This 1998 Ford Explorer burned down to not only the rubber, but much of the vehicles aluminum rims melted in the fire on Thompson Pass August 16.

Patrick Gunion of Gunion’s Towing has seen his share of charred wreckage from vehicles that have caught fire. But even he was amazed at what little was left of a 1998 Ford Explorer that caught fire on Thompson Pass last Tuesday.

“It’s amazing – the whole thing melted,” Gunion said, “It was a total mess.”

Gunion found puddled aluminum that used to be a brake drum, valve stems and plenty of other remnants strewn about the road after taking the call to remove what was left of the shell.

“I took a forklift and lifted it up,” he said, as there were no wheels and only melted rims left after the fire.

Owner Frank James said he and fiancé Barbra Knutsen were on the Pass heading home to Anchorage after spending the previous day sightseeing in Valdez.

“We came down to Valdez for the night,” James said in an interview from his home in Anchorage. “We were heading back home.”

A strange noise and loss of power caused the cruising couple to stop. James popped the hood to find flames shooting from the vehicle.

The couple did the only prudent thing.

“We took off running,” James said.

The cause of the fire is yet undetermined according to George Keeney, Valdez Fire Chief, but he said it appeared the vehicle may have been leaking a fluid before the fire.

“Where it caught on fire-we heard a strange noise coming out of there,” James said.

The couple made it down the hill back towards Valdez but could not call 911 because their cell phones had no service in the area. Fortunately, other passing motorists were able to call for emergency services in Valdez.

“A couple from Florida picked us up,” James said, “Nobody got hurt, a lot of people stopped to see what they could do.”

Photo courtesy of Patrick Gunion

The melted interior of the Explorer tells the story.

Fortunately, the vehicle was fully insured, lessening the loss and the two were home by days end, thanks to a little help from Grant Aviation.

“My fiancé’s ID and purse burned up in the vehicle,” James said, and credits Bob Engebretson with helping the two fly home despite the loss.

“...he took care of that for us,” James said “We were home that same night. He got us back as soon as he could.”

So when will the couple exchange the sound of the fire bell for wedding bells?

“We haven’t set a date yet,” James said.


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