Santa Clarita, Calif. — A late-night crash in a Southern California freeway tunnel quickly turned into a fiery, chain-reaction pileup that mangled several trucks, killed at least two people and shut down the key north-south route as the wreckage burned into Saturday.
The crash late the night before involved five to six big rigs and several passenger cars and sent people fleeing for their lives from the flaming tunnel. At least five of the trucks burst into flames, and the fire spread to the other vehicles. Ten people were injured.
"It looked like a bomb went off," said Los Angeles County firefighter Scott Clark, one of about 300 firefighters who battled the blaze through the night.
Firefighters began hauling debris out of the tunnel Saturday. Officials hope to reopen the southbound lanes of Interstate 5 by Tuesday morning, but they have been hampered by small lingering fires and concern about how many repairs will have to be made for the tunnel to be safe for the public.
"One of the things hampering us is the continuing fire," said Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation. "Our goal is to get the roadway open as quickly as possible."
The bodies of two crash victims were found in the tunnel Saturday, said California Highway Patrol Officer David Porter. He couldn't immediately say whether one of them was a trucker listed as missing.
Firefighters could find more bodies as they explored the charred tunnel. They hope to finish the search by Sunday morning, said Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp.
The pileup in the southbound truck tunnel of Interstate 5 began about 11 p.m. Friday when two big rigs collided on the rain-slickened highway about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. As crashes continued throughout the 550-foot-long tunnel, five tractor-trailers burst into flames, and the fire quickly spread.
"There was an accident in front of me. I come to a stop and then they just start hitting me, one right after another," trucker Tony Brazil told reporters at the crash site.
"A couple drivers come over the top of the truck and (said), 'Get out of here, let's get out of here,' so I got my wallet and my phone and I was able to squeeze between that truck there and the wall," Brazil said.
The cause of the crash is being investigated.
The pileup snarled traffic for miles in all directions as motorists had to navigate neighborhood streets and mountain roads to get around the wreck. It took an hour to travel 100 yards on one street just down the hill from the crash.
Interstate 5 is a key route connecting Southern and Northern California, as well as a major commuter link between Los Angeles and its northern suburbs. The affected stretch of freeway carries about 225,000 vehicles a day, and there are likely to be huge traffic jams in the area if it is still closed when people return to work Monday.
Shortly after the crash, 20 people managed to escape the fiery tunnel on foot, including the 10 injured. Eight were reported to have minor injuries and two had moderate injuries. All were treated at hospitals, mainly for burns and neck and back injuries.