Runaway truck!

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The author of this story, Don Christner (left, with frequent running partner Mike McGinty), pulls a tanker after years of experience in a variety of industry segments.The author of this story, Don Christner (left, with frequent running partner Mike McGinty), pulls a tanker after years of experience in a variety of industry segments.

In the Summer of 2013, Mike McGinty and I were hauling loads out of Utah to Denver, Colo., on I-70. Our placarded hazmat tanker loads can not be taken through the Eisenhower tunnel, so we would leave I-70 and take the hazmat route on U.S. highway 6 over Loveland Pass. The sun shone brightly and my 13-year-old son and I were enjoying the grandeur of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Cresting over the Continental Divide summit of Loveland Pass at 11,990 feet, we started down the east side. I placed the truck’s autoshift transmission in Manual and turned on the engine brake. The truck’s speed was good to use the brakes little or none. It was shaping up to be a good trip down.

But things were about to change. All the gauges in the 2011 Kenworth went to zero like I’d turned off the key. Warning lights and beeping went off all over the dash, and, most alarming, the Paccar’s engine brake stopped working. It would be OK, I thought, the truck was still in gear and my brakes were cool. I could use the truck’s brakes to keep my speed down while trying to sort out the problems.

Over the CB I let Mike know about the trouble. At some length, the lights and gauges went back to normal. I thought I was out of trouble. Then the truck’s autoshift transmission shifted itself into neutral and revved the engine to 2,100 RPMs and just held there for maybe 15 seconds, then the engine fell to an idle. The accelerator pedal was dead and the transmission light was flashing again on the console.

Now I was freewheeling down the mountain in neutral! That was unexpected, to say the least. What’s more, the brakes had heated. Now I was in trouble!

There are no runaway truck ramps, no gaurdrails, no shoulders and no do-overs on Loveland Pass! I let Mike know that my situation had worsened. Time and distance traveled became indiscernible as adrenaline sped up my thinking. Many thoughts went through my mind. At first I thought I’d turn off the key and re-boot the truck’s computer but quickly dismissed that idea. What if the computer wouldn’t reboot and the engine failed to restart? I’d lose power steering on a curvy road and the air compressor would stop also, leaving me without air for the truck’s brakes. Another thought was that I’d use the brakes as hard as I could to see if the truck would come to a stop, then jump when it slowed as much as possible.

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I looked over at my son in the passenger seat and knew that was not an option. He seemed unconcerned — dad just handles these things. I wasn’t so sure. A sense of anger and determination came over me. My son and I were going to find a way down this mountain, and I was never going to drive this truck again! I prayed silently, “Lord help me!”

Looking in the mirror I saw Mike McGinty coming up behind me in truck #169. He said he was going to pass me and see if we could use both trucks to get stopped! This was going to get even more real! Then, as suddenly as it had all began, all the lights went out and the engine RPMs sped up and matched the transmission, and the auto shift went into gear. The engine brake started working again.

Mike got his speed shut back and we got off that mountain. It felt so good to get home to my wife and family that night! The next day in Cheyenne, Wyo., when I came to work the terminal manager said, “You’re coming in kind of late aren’t you?”

“I don’t want to drive truck anymore, so I was checking the Help Wanted ads in the newspaper,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Well, there is a Kenworth out in the yard I want you to take a look at, see if you can drive it. It has a manual 18-speed transmission in it.” he said.

I have been driving that truck ever since. After 30 years of driving my arm has never failed to put the transmission in gear. I can’t figure out how you are going to improve on a record like that.

Three days later we went back over Loveland Pass. I’ll never look at it the same way again! I will never forget Mike coming for me in truck #169! Thank you Lord for getting us off that mountain!