I-880 reopens after tanker fire

October 23, 2008 10:51:25 AM PDT
A car collided into a tanker truck carrying thousands of gallons of gasoline Wednesday morning along I-880 in Oakland. The crash set off a huge fireball, bringing the Wednesday morning commute to a standstill.

Traffic was still a mess for the Wednesday evening commute. The accident damaged southbound I-880 (south of the 16th Avenue exit) so badly, it was thought to not re-open until late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.

The double tanker truck was finally removed late Wednesday afternoon. The Nimitz freeway was closed southbound from the Maze all the way to 23rd Avenue. Crews worked quickly to pave the area and open the freeway around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night.

East Bay motorists saw the sky lighting up Wednesday morning as if a bomb had exploded. In fact, the spectacular blast was caused by an accident involving a tanker truck and a car.

"The tanker left this morning at approximately 5:10 a.m., leaving the Martinez Shell Refinery with a full load of 8,600 gallons of gasoline," said Captain Don Morrell with the CHP (California Highway Patrol).

About an hour later at 6:15 a.m., the driver of a black Acura was traveling southbound on I-880 near 16th Avenue.

"The driver, she started to make a lane change, observed the vehicle, over-corrected, she lost control, struck the center divider, spun across all lanes to the right and collided with the tanker truck," said CHP spokesman Sgt. Trent Cross.

The driver of the tanker truck braked hard, but he lost control. The tanker overturned and caught on fire, burning intensely for more than an hour. It took six engines using lots of foam to put out the blaze. The fire was controlled at about 7:30 a.m., but on I-880 nothing was moving.

"Motorists are using surface streets in Oakland to bypass the impacted sections of the freeway such as Embarcadero Road and 23rd Avenue," said Dan McElhinney with Caltrans. "At 6:50 a.m., we issued a sig-alert to allow big-rigs on 580. Three lanes on northbound 880 were open by 7:55 a.m."

It was little consolation for motorists already stuck in traffic for as much as two hours or more. The pain motorists felt was offset by BART's gains.

"We saw about a seven percent increase in ridership this morning just on the stations that are south of Lake Merritt," said BART spokesman Linton Johnson.

The female driver, her passenger, and a five-year-old child escaped the inferno unscathed as did the truck driver. The company that operates the tanker truck, KAG, is based in Canton, Ohio. It bills itself as the largest independent fuel carrier in the country. The CHP tells ABC7 that its preliminary investigation finds nothing that stands out regarding the maintenance of the tanker truck. The DMV also confirms that regarding its fleet, saying that they are current in their insurance and there are no serious maintenance violations.

Freeway repairs

Caltrans went into full emergency repair mode and was able to open the freeway at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night. The plan was to put a temporary patch of asphalt on the concrete and re-open it as quickly as possible.

It was mid-afternoon before the burned-out tanker was lifted off the highway. Only then could Caltrans assess the damage.

The fire department says the fire burned on the roadway for about an hour at 2,000 degrees. That melted the asphalt surface and there was other damage from the truck impact as it hit the pavement.

"Of course, it's high urgency and we're going to expedite everything we can, working with our contractor to re-open this roadway," said McElhinney.

An emergency repair contract was given to Granite Construction which immediately moved resources up from a project on Highway 92. Caltrans says once the damage was assessed, the repairs are fairly routine.

"There's no structures involved, there's no bridges involved, but it's mainly pavement, guardrail and signs," said McElhinney.

"It's pretty much just a typical pavement and rehab project. It's grinding out the problems it's almost like a pothole repair," said Bob Haus with Caltrans.

Power poles and lines also needed repair.

"The poles were damaged by the fire, so obviously you don't want to have live electricity on a pole that isn't quite up to standard," said Haus.

The repair process involves grinding down the damaged asphalt and concrete if necessary, pouring new asphalt and concrete, and letting it set. Caltrans says normally this takes about eight hours altogether.

"We encourage the public to stay away from this area. That's the best thing people can do," said Will Kempton, Caltrans director.

Environmental concerns

Crews avoided an environmental disaster by quickly sealing off storm drains to stop fuel from getting into the Oakland Estuary. They covered storm drains that run from the freeway with sand bags and plastic sheets. What little gasoline did get into the estuary was quickly corralled with booms, then mopped up.

"We estimate it to be approximately one to two gallons. We don't know for sure because some of it evaporated before investigators got out here,"

The Oakland Fire department, California Department of Fish and Game, and the California Environmental Protection Agency all responded to clean up the spill.

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