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Archive for Monday, October 15, 2007

Tough commute awaits drivers as fire investigation continues

October 15, 2007

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— With the work week fast approaching, authorities scrambled Sunday to move traffic around a major artery out of Los Angeles that was shut down by a fiery interstate tunnel pileup.

The main southbound lanes of Interstate 5 were to reopen Monday morning, authorities said, helping to alleviate some of the problem.

But on Sunday, Interstate 5 was still shut down in both directions, snarling traffic on surrounding roads, where drivers looked for alternative routes after Friday night's pileup crash left more than two dozen trucks and other vehicles in flames.

Commuters who depend on the stretch of freeway, which carries about 225,000 vehicles a day, faced the prospect of a nightmare getting to and from work.

"We're doing everything we can ... and we'll continue to re-evaluate our alternate traffic routes," said Warren Stanley, California Highway Patrol assistant chief.

Investigators determined that 31 vehicles - including big rigs and one passenger vehicle - were involved in the crash 30 miles north of Los Angeles that killed two men and an infant and injured at least 10 people, authorities said.

The fire spread from vehicle to vehicle, sent flames shooting nearly 100 feet in the air outside the tunnel and reached temperatures as high as 1,400 degrees.

The tunnel is a truck bypass that runs beneath eight lanes of I-5, the main West Coast interstate, linking Mexico and Canada. It is also a major route from Los Angeles to the city's northern suburbs.

The southbound lanes of I-5 were closed for 2 1/2 miles; the northbound side was closed for about a mile.

Two northbound truck-bypass lanes around the crash site, which cars would be permitted to use, could reopen as early as Sunday night, said Deborah Harris, California Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

Officials hoped to reopen the southbound lanes today with detours around the tunnel area, said Doug Failing, Transportation Department district director. Other northbound lanes could reopen 24 hours later.

Metrolink, which operates commuter trains throughout Southern California, planned to start running run nonstop service with extra cars between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Clarita on Monday, spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County, which will allow the state to deploy emergency workers and equipment and give aid to local government.

Stanley refused to speculate on the cause of the crash. He did not know when findings would be released.

The pileup in the southbound truck tunnel began about 11 p.m. Friday. According to early reports, two big rigs collided on the rain-slickened highway.

The acrid smell of burned oil and rubber lingered Sunday at the 550-foot tunnel. The roadbed and walls where charred black, and concrete had fallen away in places, exposing the structure's steel skeleton.

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