OAKLAND, Calif. – A gasoline tanker crashed and burst into flames near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Sunday, creating such intense heat that a stretch of highway melted and collapsed. Officials predicted a traffic nightmare for Bay Area commuters for weeks or months to come.
Flames shot 200 feet in the air, but the truck's driver walked away from the scene with second-degree burns. No other injuries were reported in the 3:45 a.m. crash, which officials said could have been deadly had it occurred at a busier time.
"I've never seen anything like it," Officer Trent Cross of the California Highway Patrol said of the crumpled interchange. "I'm looking at this thinking, 'Wow, no one died' — that's amazing. It's just very fortunate."
Authorities said the damage could take months to repair, and that it would cause the worst disruption for Bay Area commuters since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged a section of the Bay Bridge itself.
Nearly 75,000 vehicles use the portion of the road every day. But because the accident occured where three highways converge, authorities said it could cause commuting problems for hundreds of thousands of people. State transportation officials said 280,000 commuters take the bridge into San Francisco each day.
On Sunday the collapse doubled the half-hour trip drivers normally face getting to and from San Francisco and the eastern suburbs — even though many didn't even attempt the trip because of the crash. Traffic appeared light on the bridge itself, but motorists looking to get on and off were backed up on both sides.
Transportation officials said they already had added trains to the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system that takes commuters across San Francisco Bay, and were urging people to telecommute if possible.
State officials said motorists who try to take alternate routes Monday instead of relying on public transportation would face nightmarish commutes.
The tanker carrying 8,600 gallons of gasoline ignited after crashing into a pylon on the interchange, which connects westbound lanes of Interstate 80 to southbound I-880, on the edge of downtown Oakland about half a mile from the Bay Bridge's toll plaza.
The driver, James Mosqueda, 51, of Woodland, was headed from a refinery in Benecia to a gas station near the Oakland Airport when the accident occurred, according to the California Highway Patrol.
A preliminary investigation indicated he may have been speeding on the curving road, Cross said. Mosqueda was being treated in a hospital for burns Sunday; the hospital would not transfer media calls to his room.
Witnesses reported flames rising up to 200 feet into the air. Heat exceeded 2,750 degrees and caused the steel beams holding up the interchange from eastbound I-80 to eastbound Interstate 580 above to buckle and bolts holding the structure together to melt, leading to the collapse, California Department of Transportation director Will Kempton said.
The charred section of collapsed freeway was draped at a sharp angle onto the highway beneath, exposing a web of twisted metal beneath the concrete. Officials said that altogether a 250-yard portion of the upper roadway was damaged.
The cost of the repairs would likely run into the tens of millions of dollars, and the state was seeking federal disaster aid, Kempton said. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger planned to issue an emergency declaration to allow repairs to happen faster, said Adam Mendelsohn, the governor's spokesman.
The Bay Bridge consists of two heavily traveled, double-decked bridges about two miles long straddling San Francisco Bay.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the accident showed how fragile the Bay area's transportation network is, whether to an earthquake or terrorist attack, and has the potential to have a major economic effect on the city.
"It's another giant wakeup call," Newsom told reporters at the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego.