Vehicle inferno kills 3, jams weekend Los Angeles traffic
By Michael R. Blood
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press
SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — The late-night crash in a California highway tunnel started a fire so hellish it melted steel and pulverized chunks of concrete. In the wreckage and flame, three lives perished.
And then, a miracle.
Authorities marveled Sunday that 10 people escaped unharmed from inferno-like fire in the 550-foot tunnel on Interstate 5 — a blaze that burned as hot as 1,400 degrees.
"When we look at tunnel fires . . . it's pretty miraculous those people were able to get out," said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp.
With the large numbers of vehicles trapped inside the tunnel, many more people could have been hurt or killed, he said.
The fire "consumed everything that was burnable," Tripp said. What was left was "molten metal, frames of vehicles."
Investigators Sunday picked through scorched tire rims, truck axles and other wreckage looking for the cause of the crash while police prepared for a traffic nightmare at the start of the work week.
Authorities determined that 28 commercial vehicles — including many big rigs — and one passenger vehicle were involved in the pileup Friday night. Two men and an infant were killed and 10 others suffered minor to moderate injuries. Ten more managed to walk away.
The highway was shut down in both directions around the crash site, and traffic was snarled on surrounding roads where drivers looked for alternative routes following the crash. The southbound lanes were closed for 2 1/2 miles; the northbound side was closed for about a mile.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County, allowing the state to provide emergency personnel and other assistance under the California Disaster Assistance Act.
The curving tunnel, built in the 1970s, has long been regarded by truckers as one of the most dangerous areas of the freeway that connects Southern and Northern California and links Los Angeles to its northern suburbs.
"There's kind of a blind spot, so if you boogie around the bend too fast and there's somebody stopped in the tunnel, it'll be 'boom-boom-boom,' " Arthur Johnson, 45, of Buckeye, Ariz., told the Los Angeles Times.
Truck driver Fausto Angelino said he's been driving that stretch of road for 23 years.
"I hold my breath every time," he said.
But state authorities said the tunnel was safe.
"I'm aware of no safety concerns," said Doug Failing, a California Department of Transportation district director.
California Highway Patrol Assistant Chief Warren Stanley refused to speculate on the cause of the crash but said authorities would finish their on-scene investigation Sunday. He did not know when findings would be released.
The fire spread from vehicle to vehicle and sent flames shooting nearly 100 feet in the air outside the tunnel.
Officials say southbound lanes of Interstate 5 will reopen this morning. Northbound lanes could reopen Tuesday morning.
The acrid smell of burned oil and rubber lingered in the tunnel Sunday. The roadbed and walls where charred black, and concrete had fallen away in places, exposing the structure's steel skeleton.
A front loader shoveled blackened debris into a dump truck. Investigators moved among the wreckage, examining debris and taking notes. Charred vehicle parts were discernible among the twisted, blackened mass.
Crews were expected to bring in steel supports to add strength to the fire-damaged tunnel. Failing said engineers would drill samples out of the tunnel wall to assess the damage.
Highway engineers used hammers and other tools while examining the tunnel for safety. The tunnel is a truck bypass that runs beneath eight lanes of I-5, the major West Coast interstate linking Mexico to Canada.
Commuters who depend on the stretch of freeway that carries about 225,000 vehicles a day faced the prospect of massive traffic headaches with the work week set to resume today.
"We're doing everything we can . . . and we'll continue to re-evaluate our alternate traffic routes," Stanley said.
The bodies of one man and a child were in the cab of a truck hauling cantaloupe, which appeared to have hit a pillar outside the tunnel, a fire official told the Associated Press on condition his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak about the incident.
The other body was found in a truck about 12 feet short of the tunnel's exit, the official said.
All the bodies were burned beyond recognition, he said. It could be several days before the names of the dead were released, county coroner's investigator Kelly Yagerlener said.
The pileup in the southbound truck tunnel began about 11 p.m. Friday when two big rigs collided on the rain-slicked highway about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
As crashes continued throughout the tunnel, five tractor-trailers burst into flames, and the fire quickly spread.
The pileup snarled traffic for miles in all directions over the weekend as motorists had to navigate neighborhood streets and mountain roads to get around the disaster. At one point, it took an hour to travel 100 yards on a street just down the hill from the crash.
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