A 4-year-old Billings girl died Wednesday when the vehicle she was in caught fire on Interstate 90 West between Big Timber and Livingston. Three others were injured.
The cause of the fire was a punctured gas tank, according to Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Eric Fetterhoff.
The 2002 Subaru Impreza occupied by five people erupted in flames a little before 6 p.m. on Wednesday as two Billings families were driving separately to Oregon for vacation.
The Impreza was occupied by a 40-year-old woman. Her 14-year-old daughter was in the passenger seat, and her 4-year-old daughter was in the back in a forward-facing car seat. Two girls, 7 and 9, sat beside the 4-year-old.
Their father was following in an SUV.
Fetterhoff said the father radioed to the woman driving the car that he could smell gas and told her to pull over. The father later told Fetterhoff that he recognized the smell from when his house burned down two months ago.
She did, and only a couple seconds later the vehicle went up in flames.
Fetterhoff said the father opened the back door and grabbed his kids out and suffered severe burns in the process. The woman and her 14-year-old daughter were able to escape, but they weren’t able to save the 4-year-old girl.
Park County Coroner Al Jenkins identified her as Zaria Santos. An autopsy is scheduled for later this week.
The 9-year-old girl who was sitting by the window was transported by Summit Air Ambulance out of Bozeman to St. Vincent Healthcare. Fetterhoff said she was in ICU as of midnight Wednesday.
An ambulance transported her 7-year-old sister with burns on her feet to Livingston Memorial Hospital along with the father who suffered severe burns to his arms and face.
Fetterhoff said the cause of the fire was a dime-sized hole in the fuel tank that caused fuel to puddle up after the vehicle stopped, which, he said, heat from the car ignited. It didn’t take long, just a couple seconds.
There will be a critical incident stress debriefing in Livingston on Friday at 5 p.m. The event will offer people the opportunity to talk about what they saw, Fetterhoff said.
“Nobody in the world should have to see something like that,” he said.
The incident is still under investigation.