Driver indicted after crash into propane tank sparks deadly home explosion

Driver indicted after crash into propane tank sparks deadly home explosion
J.B. and Naomi Newton (Source: Family)
J.B. and Naomi Newton (Source: Family)

CLEVELAND COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - A 24-year-old driver has been indicted nearly six weeks after he crashed into a home propane tank in Fallston, setting off a home explosion that killed an elderly couple.

Cleveland County officials say a truck crashed into a propane tank at the couple's home off of East Stagecoach Trail in late February.

The couple, 74-year-old Johnie (J.B.) Newton and 76-year-old Naomi Newton, were inside at the time of the explosion. The Newtons were able to escape, but later died from injuries sustained in the explosion.

"It won't bring the Newtons back, and it really won't help the family. But it gives them a little bit of closure, maybe, knowing that it was an accident," said Doris Weaver, who lives across the street, and was close friends with the couple.

State officials said a 1997 GMC pickup truck, driven by 24-year-old Thomas Pruitt, crossed the center line and hit the shoulder of the roadway and crashed into the home, causing the propane gas tank to rupture and explode.

Tuesday morning, Pruitt was indicted on two counts of misdemeanor death by vehicle.

Pruitt went to the hospital after the crash, but was released a short time later. In an off-camera interview outside his home the next day, Pruitt told WBTV he didn't want to talk about what happened.

Neighbors who ran to the scene to help said Pruitt spoke with them.

"The driver stated when I got to him at the road he fell asleep at the wheel. 'I fell asleep, oh God. I fell asleep'," one neighbor told WBTV. "And then later on his story changed - that he was dodging a deer. So I don't know."

Even though Pruitt is indicted, neighbors say more needs to be done about road safety.

Neighbors tell WBTV they have seen their fair share of accidents on that stretch of East Stagecoach Trail.

In fact, the Newtons' yard and fence were constantly getting crashed into.

"Mr. Newton has put that fence up several times. This year there's been four accidents there. To them, I guess that night, it was like, 'well, someone has hit us again,' and didn't think about the real danger," Weaver said.

Neighbors say they have complained to DOT several times about the dangers of the curve on the road. Weaver says back in 2010, J.B. Newton brought up this issue to the city, which then brought it up to the state.

"It could have been prevented is the way I looked at it. In 2010 he wanted a guardrail, but the state thought 'curve ahead' signs were enough."

North Carolina DOT told WBTV over the phone that it conducted a study of East Stagecoach Trail, and found it was safe as long as drivers obeyed the 35-mile-per-hour speed limit. An official says engineers are continuing to investigate to see if the road needs more safety measures.

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