Crews End Search After Massive Tunnel Fire on California Freeway

Firefighters finished removing charred debris Sunday from a freeway tunnel where three people died in a fiery pileup that could keep a major interstate shut down for days.

Investigators determined 28 commercial vehicles and one passenger vehicle were involved in the crash late Friday that killed three people and injured at least 10, Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp said. The search of the debris ended Sunday morning and confirmed no more fatalities.

With the large numbers of vehicles trapped inside the tunnel, "there was a potential for a greater number of critical injuries, let alone fatalities," Tripp said.

Officials hope to reopen the southbound lanes of the closed freeway by Tuesday morning, but they have been hampered by concern about how many repairs will have to be made for the tunnel to be safe.

"Our goal is to get the roadway open as quickly as possible," said Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation.

The bodies of two crash victims were found early Saturday and a third was found later in the day, authorities said. The dead were two adult males and one child, said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Jason Hurd.

The bodies of one man and the child were in the cab of a truck hauling cantaloupe, which appeared to have hit a pillar outside the tunnel, a fire official told The Associated Press on condition his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak about the crash.

The other body was found in a truck about 12 feet short of the tunnel's exit, said the official.

The exact ages of the victims were unknown. County coroner's investigator Kelly Yagerlener said it could be several days before the names of the dead were released.

Ten others suffered minor to moderate injuries.

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. 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 about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles snarled traffic for miles in all directions as motorists had to navigate neighborhood streets and mountain roads to get around the wreck. Traveling 100 yards on one street just down the hill from the crash took an hour.

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 tunnel, built in the 1970s, and its mix of curves and darkness has long been regarded by truckers as one of the most dangerous areas of the freeway.

"There's kind of a blind spot, so if you boogie around the bend too fast and there's somebody stopped in the tunnel, it'll be 'boom-boom-boom', Arthur Johnson, 45, of Buckeye Ariz. told the Los Angeles Times.

Truck driver Fausto Angelino said he's been driving that stretch of road for 23 years.

"I hold my breath every time," he said.

The 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.