Tunnel fire kills two in Calif.

Fierce blaze forces closure of highway after as many as 15 trucks crash

October 14, 2007|By Ann M. Simmons and Ted Rohrlich | Ann M. Simmons and Ted Rohrlich,Los Angeles Times

Two people died and 10 were injured in a fiery multivehicle crash in an Interstate 5 tunnel south of Santa Clarita in Southern California late Friday, closing the freeway in both directions until at least today as authorities try to determine whether the road sustained structural damage.

Firefighters, trying to put out the tunnel fire yesterday afternoon, warned that the operation could take days.

Eight of the 10 injuries were reported as minor, with the others said to be of moderate severity. The dead were not immediately identified. As many as 15 trucks were involved, as well as at least one passenger car that was flattened near the tunnel's entrance. At least five of the trucks burst into flames, and the fire spread to the others.

Authorities were unsure yesterday how long the main north-south route connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco would be closed. But Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Jason Hurd said it could be days.

Hurd said that firefighters would not be able to gain entry to the center of the tunnel - where temperatures reached as high as 2,000 degrees for many hours and might have damaged the tunnel's concrete walls - before today.

He said that "it could take days to put the fire out - we don't even know what type of vehicles are inside, the damage is so extreme."

The chain-reaction crash occurred in a short tunnel under all eight lanes of the freeway. The tunnel is designated for trucks but is often used by cars.

Firefighters said the entire tunnel, which extends at least 200 feet, was engulfed in flames for hours after at least one truck, which was carrying fuel, caught fire. Witnesses reported a series of explosions.

Yesterday afternoon, authorities took reporters to the mouth of the tunnel, where they saw an entrance jammed with parts of charred trucks. Tow trucks and tractors were beginning to clear wreckage.

Victoria Cibrian was nearby, waiting for word about her missing husband, Ricardo, a truck driver she fears might have been trapped inside. Cibrian, of Los Angeles, said a colleague of her husband called her yesterday morning to tell her that her husband was in the crash. "I couldn't wait at home anymore, so I came here," she said.

Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp said the fire was so intense that chunks of concrete exploded off the sides of the tunnel.

"It has impacted the structural stability of the tunnel," he said, but authorities were unsure to what extent.

Although Tripp said there were no indications that any of the trucks was carrying hazardous materials, officials were unwilling to investigate the scene until the fire was extinguished and they were certain there was no danger.

Interstate 5 is commercially important, but disruptions along its 1,381-mile length from the Mexican border to Canada have become increasingly common. Many disruptions have been attributed to a combination of steadily increasing traffic and a steady deterioration of roadways.

Truckers familiar with the tunnel described it as one of the most dangerous spots on Interstate 5.

"It curves," said Luis Ceja, 49, of Norwalk, Calif., who said he had been driving trucks for 20 years. "You don't see what's ahead."

Ann M. Simmons and Ted Rohrlich write for the Los Angeles Times.

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