Cleveland County couple dies when propane tank explodes

Fire at Cleveland County home kills 2

A Cleveland County couple has died after a truck crashed into a propane tank early Monday. This video provided by Lem Lynch Photography.
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A Cleveland County couple has died after a truck crashed into a propane tank early Monday. This video provided by Lem Lynch Photography.

A Cleveland County couple has died after a truck crashed into a propane tank on their property late Sunday, causing a fireball that rocketed pieces of their house hundreds of feet away.

The mayor of Fallston, Doris Weaver, said she had previously petitioned the state to do something about the dangerous curve, which had been the site of previous car wrecks.

“It’s just hard to think that we had to lose two lives over something that could have been fixed,” Weaver said. “I have to look out my window and look at where that house used to stand and be reminded of that.”

Investigators identified the couple as Johnie Newton, 74, and Naomi Newton, 76. After the crash, they escaped from their home, off East Stagecoach Trail in Fallston, about an hour’s drive from Charlotte, but later died from injuries sustained in the crash and ensuing explosion.

The truck’s driver was identified as Thomas Pruitt, 24, of Kings Mountain, according to the N.C. Highway Patrol. He was injured and taken to the hospital, but authorities haven’t released details about the extent of his injuries. Investigators are conferring with the Cleveland County District Attorney’s Office to determine if Pruitt will face criminal charges, according to N.C. Highway Patrol.

Weaver, 64, said this is the fourth traffic collision at the home in a year.

As mayor, she says she had talked with officials at the Department of Transportation about installing a sign with flashing lights or a guard rail to make the curve safer.

The DOT conducted a study measuring traffic speeds, she said, but didn’t take further action. Taking matters into his own hands, Johnie Newton had tried building a barricade to protect his home from cars that spun out of control on the curve. But Weaver said he abandoned the move after officials told him he could be held liable if someone were injured as a result of his amateur construction efforts.

An after-hours message at the N.C. DOT’s office in Shelby was not returned.

On Sunday night, Weaver said, her family heard a crash coming from the home across the street.

“I went out the front door and I could immediately hear the gas,” she said. Her son and his wife went to attend to the injured man in the truck.

“We got him across the street, but I was yelling ‘The gas! The gas!’ ” Weaver said.

An injured Johnie Newton had come out of the house, but his wife was inside, on the phone with 911 dispatchers.

Weaver said her son implored Naomi Newton to come out of the house as the smell of gas intensified.

“She finally made eye contact with my son and started moving,” Weaver said. “She made three steps before the house blew.”

Photos from the scene showed a flattened house, with splinters of wood from the home in the street as firefighters tried to battle the blaze. The force of the blast sent a door into the metal gate outside the house, scorched a nearby pickup truck and set the grass on fire.

Bruce Swiecicki, senior technical adviser for the National Propane Gas Association, said that although there are codes and standards for propane tanks near roadways, it would be difficult for installers or homeowners to safeguard against a freak accident like Sunday’s.

“If vehicle traffic is going to be passing by regularly, then yes, you may need to erect some barriers or put up some kind of protection,” he said. “But if it was way off the street, I’m not aware of any materials or codes that would address the situation.”

Staff writer Karen Sullivan contributed.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046, @CleveWootson