ATWATER VILLAGE (CNS) – A tanker truck flipped and caught fire in a tunnel beneath a major freeway interchange north of downtown Los Angeles Saturday, causing a major traffic jam, fuel spill into the Los Angeles River and a hazardous smoke scare.
Early reports from the California Highway Patrol were that one person may have been killed, but firefighters later reported they found no body and the truck driver had been talking with them. About 8.500 gallons of some type of fuel was awash in storm drains and the Los Angeles River following the crash, which was reported at 10:31 a.m.
By 11:10 a.m., CHP officers reported one dead person was possibly inside a tunnel at the interchange of the Golden State (5) and Glendale (2) freeways. Drivers were fleeing heavy smoke by driving the wrong way on freeways, CHP officers said.
About a quarter mile away, a large flow of flammable liquid was spotted emerging from a storm drain into the Los Angeles River, and it was observed by a fire helicopter pilot flowing about one mile downstream from there.
The liquid had been washed into flood control pipes by firefighting efforts, and officials worried about “backdraft conditions” where the volatile mixture was flowing out of the pipe. Storm drains were becoming pressurized with flammable liquid and water, and firefighters called for police to move people back should an explosion occur.
Spot fires broke out along the storm drain between the tunnel and the river, in an area of the city traditionally called “Frogtown.”
The 5 Freeway there handles about 292,000 vehicles per day, according to Caltrans figures, and traffic to today’s 4:15 p.m. Dodgers game was expected to be heavily impacted.
Newly-opened walking paths along the L.A River were hurriedly evacuated by police.
CHP officer Ed Jacobs said the fire was triggered by a tanker truck that had flipped over in the subterranean ramp from the southbound 2 freeway to the southbound 5. City fire spokesman Brian Humphrey said the truck driver said he had hit a guard rail approaching the tunnel.
Firefighters originally were called to a brush fire burning in heavy landscaping along the 5 Freeway next to a Caltrans maintenance yard at Riverside Drive at Allessando Street, Humphrey said.
Air monitoring equipment was rushed to measure what was in the air, as the fire raged more than 55 minutes.
For three hours, Interstate 5 was closed to southbound traffic at Fletcher Boulevard, and northbound traffic was closed at Stadium Way. The southbound 2 was also closed at its Fletcher Boulevard exit, and northbound 2 was closed from its terminus at Glendale Boulevard.
That blocked one of two major freeway links between downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Traffic on the parallel Hollywood (101) Freeway was quickly jammed.
As the flames were extinguished by 1:15 p.m., the southbound 5 was reopened. But all northbound 5 traffic was being diverted onto the northbound 2, and traffic was severely backed up on freeways in the East Los Angeles Interchange and the downtown area.
At midafternoon, the tunnel connecting southbound 2 to southbound 5 remained closed as the wreckage and tunnel were examined. Northbound 5 traffic was being channeled onto the northbound 2 for a detour around Glendale.
Structural engineers had been called in to examine the tunnel beneath the 5 Freeway, about five miles north of downtown.