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Update: Head-on crash kills driver on U.S. Highway 491 north of Cortez

A head-on crash involving a tanker truck killed a person in a passenger vehicle Wednesday afternoon on U.S. Highway 491 north of Cortez, according to the Colorado State Patrol. The highway remains closed between Road S and Colorado Highway 184. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Driver unable to escape burning Dodge Durango

One person died in a head-on crash involving a passenger car and a semitrailer Wednesday afternoon on U.S. Highway 491 south of the Lewis-Arriola school.

The tanker truck caught fire, and a person in the Dodge Durango was killed, according to Master Trooper Gary Cutler of the Colorado State Patrol.

Because of the severity of the fire, the driver was not identified, but was listed as “Jane Doe” in the State Patrol incident report.

The truck driver, identified as Paul M. Baker, 37, of Huntsville, Utah, was taken to Southwest Memorial Hospital.

The crash occurred about 3 p.m. near mile marker 36, and closed the highway at the intersection of County Road S and at the intersection of Colorado Highway 184.

“They both were fully engulfed in flames,“ said Cpl. Jonathan Silver, with the State Patrol. ”The driver of the tanker was able to self-extricate before it trapped or burned him. The other vehicle, the driver was unable to get out and was burned.“

The tanker was empty, so it wasn’t the cause of the blaze, Silver said. It had been hauling a corrosive material, but it wasn’t fuel, he said.

The highway is not expected to reopen for a few hours while the crash is investigated and cleaned up, said Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin.

Sheriff deputies and Colorado Department of Transportation are stationed at the highway closures and directing traffic to detours.

An empty tanker truck erupted in flames after a collision Wednesday on U.S. Highway 491 north of Cortez. (Shelly Griffin/Special to The Journal)

Initial reports were that the semitrailer was northbound and the passenger vehicle was southbound.

No further information was available about the cause of crash or the identity of the victim.

The tanker truck was empty, Cutler said, but residue contributed to the fire, which created a plume of black smoke visible from miles away. The fire was extinguished by 3:30 p.m., he said.

Shelly Griffin was on her way home to Lewis when she and her husband were stopped in traffic behind the crash.

She was dismayed to see that vehicles were not pulling over to the side of the road for emergency vehicles.

“They were forced to weave around them to get to the crash,” she said.

Griffin was on the side of the road a short distance from the crash. Amid the black billowing smoke and with a tanker fire nearby, the couple decided to turn around after a few minutes.

“It is going to blow up,” she thought.

Firefighters from the Cortez and Lewis-Arriola fire districts, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office and a Southwest Health System ambulance also responded to the scene.

This article will be updated when more information becomes available.