Car crashes into propane tank, causes gas leak

This story was written by Quintin Ellison, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

A car crashed Tuesday evening into a propane tank off Municipal Drive. Photo by Jason Farmer.

Emergency responders moved quickly Tuesday evening to evacuate residents after a car careened off Municipal Drive in Sylva and smashed into a 500-gallon propane tank behind The Community Table.

A tank valve sheered off, allowing gas to leak.

People living near the soup kitchen and in the area of Sylva Presbyterian Church were asked to leave the danger area. Three waited out the emergency in the Sylva Fire Department, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Bryson said.

“We put water on the tank until employees from the gas company came,” he said. “They put the tank upright. When they did that, it quit leaking.”

The crash happened at about 7 p.m. Residents were allowed to return to their homes by 9 p.m., after monitors showed the danger had passed, Jackson County Emergency Management Director Todd Dillard said. The closed streets – Grindstaff Cove Road, Municipal Drive and Central Street – were reopened to traffic.

The car’s driver, Jeremiah Birchum, 37, of Hallelujah Acres, Whittier, refused medical transport; however, he later drove himself to Harris Regional Hospital, according to Sylva Police Lt. Rick Bryson.

Birchum’s 2-year-old son was secured in a child’s seat in the back seat of Birchum’s car. He wasn’t injured, the lieutenant said.

Police charged Birchum with reckless driving and failure to reduce speed, according to public records.

Birchum was eastbound on Municipal Drive when he lost control of his vehicle.

He said he was headed to Walmart when the wreck happened. “I turned in a curve and the car made a thumping noise, and kept going straight,” he said Wednesday.

Birchum drove over an embankment before hitting the tank. He said when he realized that gas was leaking, he turned off the car, grabbed his son and fled.

In addition to the tank, the car damaged a light pole, hand rail and the sidewalk, according to Lt. Bryson.

The smell of gas enveloped Sylva from the crash site to Mill Street.

“It was horrible,” Connie Mathis said on the Herald’s Facebook site. “The smell caused me to have a terrible headache. We came through there right when it happened, and people were running down the street.”

In addition to Sylva, Balsam, Cullowhee and Savannah fire departments provided mutual aid. An ambulance was on scene, too, but moved back to Railroad Avenue because of fumes.

Carey Phillips contributed to this report.