A Bridgeport man died in an explosive van fire late Wednesday on the Merritt Parkway in Fairfield, a death that State Police investigators were calling "untimely" Thursday.
Omar Valencia, 50, died from smoke inhalation, according to State Police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance. The State Police major crimes unit and the state Fire Marshal's office are investigating the incident.
The crash does not appear to be criminal in nature, Vance said, but the cause of the inferno had not been determined Thursday.
Firefighters were dispatched shortly after 11 p.m. to investigate a Papurah Road resident's report of a vehicle fire in the highway's southbound lanes that was visible from the neighborhood, and according to Assistant Fire Chief George Gomola, when they arrived on the scene they discovered a body near the burning van. The body was about 70 feet from the van, according to police.
Connie Wocell, the Papurah Road resident who called the Fire Department, said she was asleep about 11 p.m. and was awakened by what sounded like screaming. Wocell said she has seen and heard coyotes in her yard, which is about four yards from the parkway and separated from the road by woods, and thought the screams sounded similar to that. But then Wocell looked out one of her picture windows and saw flames.
"I heard the screaming and that was almost instantaneously followed by a huge explosion, like a bomb," said Wocell in a phone interview. "That set the dogs barking and I heard what sounded like car horns, so I jumped up to see what was going on and saw the car was on fire. It was such a huge inferno."
Wocell said she did not hear anyone talking or see any people after the explosion, and heard no more screaming. "It didn't make any sense," she said.
She said she heard other explosions as tires and other vehicle parts caught fire.
The blaze triggered a brush fire along the shoulder of the highway, forcing emergency crews to close the southbound lanes of the parkway from Exits 46 to 44 for most of the early-morning hours and the right lane remained closed until about 8 a.m., with heavy delays back to Exit 48.
Gomola said the fire report was received at the town's Emergency Communications Center at 11:09 p.m.
Firefighters initially found a 1997 Chrysler Town and County minivan fully involved in flames, Gomola said. Magnesium caused the fiery explosions, igniting the van's gasoline tank and tires, he said.
After firefighters extinguished the blaze and brush fire, they discovered the man's body. No other occupants of the vehicle were found after the fire was put out, Gomola said.
A source indicated that there were footprints -- apparently the victim's -- visible in the grass from the van to where the body was found.
Adding to the confusion, the driver of a Hyundai Elantra passing the fire became distracted and struck a Mitsubishi Galant that pulled into the right lane in front of the burning van, as the driver of that car tried to provide help, Gomola said. The driver of the striking car was injured and taken to St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport to be treated for minor injuries, Gomola said. The Mitsubishi was not occupied at the time of the accident.
In a statement Thursday morning, acting First Selectman Sherri Steeneck thanked firefighters for "their professionalism and hard work ... Having been a nurse in a previous career, I know that the emotional factor when there is severe injury and particularly loss of life, can be as exhausting as the physical demands of your job. My thoughts are with you all."