Calif. tanker fire will force freeway demolition

December 16, 2011 • National News

Firefighters discuss how to approach a burning double-tanker truck gasoline fire in Montebello, Calif, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. Thousands of motorists were stuck on a 10-mile stretch of freeway near Los Angeles after the big-rig tanker truck burst into flames Wednesday. No one was injured. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

MONTEBELLO, Calif. (AP) — For the second time in a year, Southern California motorists faced a freeway “Carmageddon.” But as the evening commute loomed Thursday there was some good news: A 10-mile stretch of road closed by a gasoline tanker fire could reopen within a day.

In a region where accidents routinely clog rush-hour routes for hours, crews called in heavy tractors to quickly demolish part of a heavily damaged overpass on State Highway 60 east of downtown Los Angeles.

A double-tanker hauling nearly 9,000 gallons of gasoline went up in flames Wednesday under the Paramount Boulevard bridge in Montebello, east of Los Angeles. The driver was not hurt, but the intense flames and heat melted the truck, cratered the road beneath it and cracked the concrete on the overpass so that chunks crashed onto the pavement [auth] below.

Authorities quickly closed the freeway, a major route connecting Los Angeles to dozens of bedroom communities to its east. Rush-hour traffic Wednesday evening and Thursday morning quickly became gridlocked for miles, delaying commuters by as many as two hours or more and spilling over onto other freeways and surface streets.

Engineers determined that the damaged steel and concrete made the eastern side of the bridge too dangerous to save. Concrete core samples were being examined to determine whether the western side would be pulled down as well.

Either way, the freeway was expected to reopen Friday afternoon in time for the evening rush hour, California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kelly Markham said.

“You will look up overhead and where you used to see bridge, you will see sky,” she said.

The overpass was built in 1966. It was unclear how long rebuilding the span might take but it could be weeks or months, Markham said.

That will require closing a stretch of freeway again, although officials said much of the work could be done at night.

“It is an emergency contract. We will do it as quickly as possible,” Markham said.

Tens of thousands of drivers use the freeway daily to commute from communities in eastern Los Angeles County and adjoining Riverside and San Bernardino counties. It also is a main route for trucks delivering vast streams of goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to inland warehouses.

Among those caught in Thursday’s mammoth morning traffic jam was Nakisa Kohanchi, an Iranian immigrant who missed her naturalization ceremony because of the traffic tie-up.

Kohanchi left her home in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles at 7:15 a.m. and headed to the ceremony in Montebello, 20 miles away.

It took her nearly two hours to get there, as she was routed off State Highway 60, got lost and drove in circles.

“I had to exit the freeway and I didn’t know how I could get there from the streets,” said Kohanchi, who planned to become a U.S. citizen at a second ceremony scheduled later in the day.

The shutdown of a key section of Los Angeles area freeway revived memories of the first Carmageddon earlier this year.

In July, a 10-mile stretch of another freeway was closed for a weekend so a bridge could be demolished. Officials had warned for weeks that the work on Interstate 405 in West Los Angeles could create epic traffic jams, however, and people who got the word stayed far away. Traffic in many areas was actually lighter than usual.

That wasn’t the case Wednesday.

“We couldn’t warn people about this because it was an accident,” California Highway Patrol Officer Luis Mendoza said of the tanker fire.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation. There was no crash, so investigators planned to look at other factors, such as possible brake or other mechanical failure.

There were nearly 400 accidents involving tanker trucks hauling chemicals in the U.S. last year and they resulted in five deaths, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.Most accidents occurred as the tankers were unloading. Only seven occurred in California and none involved a fire.


Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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