|Southbound traffic was backed up on Interstate 5 in Santa Clarita, Calif., late Friday, after a 15-truck pileup left 3 dead. (Stephen Osman/Associated Press via Los Angeles Times)|
Investigators scour wreckage for cause of deadly Calif. pileup
SANTA CLARITA, Calif. - Investigators picked through scorched tire rims, truck axles, and other wreckage yesterday, hoping to pinpoint what triggered a fiery interstate tunnel pileup that killed three, while police and commuters braced for a traffic nightmare at the start of the work week.
With miles of Interstate 5 shut down, traffic was snarled on nearby roads where drivers looked for alternate routes after Friday night's pileup, which engulfed more than two dozen trucks and other vehicles in flames and closed a section of the heavily used freeway north of Los Angeles.
Warren Stanley, California Highway Patrol assistant chief, would not speculate on the cause of the crash but said authorities would finish their on-scene investigation shortly.
He did not know when findings would be released.
Investigators determined that 28 commercial vehicles - including many big rigs - and one passenger car were involved in the crash, which killed two men and an infant and injured at least 10 people, said John Tripp, Los Angeles County deputy fire chief.
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, Tripp said.
"It consumed everything that was burnable," the chief said, leaving behind only "molten metal, frames of vehicles."
Governor 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.
The southbound lanes of I-5 were closed for 2 1/2 miles; the northbound side was closed for about a mile.
Officials planned to reopen the southbound lanes of the freeway by today, possibly with detours around the tunnel area, California Department of Transportation district director Doug Failing said. Northbound lanes could reopen 24 hours later.
The acrid smell of burned oil and rubber lingered yesterday 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.
A front loader shoveled blackened debris into a dump truck. Investigators moved among the wreckage, examining debris and taking notes. Charred vehicle parts were discernible in twisted, blackened masses.
Highway engineers used hammers and other tools while examining the tunnel for safety. The tunnel is a truck bypass that runs beneath eight lanes of I-5, the main West Coast interstate, linking Mexico and Canada.
Commuters who depend on the section of freeway 30 miles north of Los Angeles that carries about 225,000 vehicles a day faced the prospect of traffic headaches with the work week set to resume today.
The bodies of one man and a child were in the cab of a truck hauling cantaloupe, which appeared to have hit a pillar outside the tunnel, a fire official said on condition his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak about the incident.
The other body was found in a truck about 12 feet short of the tunnel's exit, said the official.
All the bodies were burned beyond recognition, he said.
County coroner's investigator Kelly Yagerlener said it could be several days before the names of the dead were released.
Ten victims suffered minor to moderate injuries, and 10 others in the tunnel when the crash occurred managed to escape unharmed, Stanley said.
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.