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LA-area freeway torched by tanker truck now open

A burning double-tanker gasoline truck sends smoke skyward in Montebello, Calif, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. Thousands of motorists were stuck on a 10-mile stretch of freeway near Los Angeles after the big-rig tanker truck burst into flames Wednesday. No one was injured. A burning double-tanker gasoline truck sends smoke skyward in Montebello, Calif, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. Thousands of motorists were stuck on a 10-mile stretch of freeway near Los Angeles after the big-rig tanker truck burst into flames Wednesday. No one was injured. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
By Noaki Schwartz
Associated Press / December 17, 2011
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LOS ANGELES—All lanes of a vital Southern California freeway were open again Saturday, three days after a shutdown was forced by a huge tanker truck fire that left an overpass badly damaged.

The reopening of the Pomona Freeway east of Los Angeles brought an end to three grueling days of traffic for commuters and around-the-clock labor for highway crews.

Eastbound lanes of the 10-mile stretch of freeway in Montebello were reopened at about 3 p.m. Saturday, Caltrans said in a statement. The westbound lanes had been opened about four hours earlier.

Wednesday's tanker truck inferno torched an overpass on the freeway and severed a key link between Los Angeles and its eastern suburbs.

Tests showed that the bridge over the westbound lanes was safe for the time being, and could remain standing, but the rest of it had to be torn down.

That process was slowed by the discovery of asbestos and phone lines inside the bridge, forcing a slow dismantling so as not to release cancer-causing asbestos into the air or cut off telephone communications to thousands of people.

"It's pretty complicated," said Scott J. Brandenberg, an associate professor of engineering at University of California, Los Angeles. "Bridges are designed to be built to last and stay in place. They're not like interchangeable pieces where you pop out a bridge and put a new one in place."

The phone lines were not damaged by the fire but the asbestos posed a health threat, so hazardous materials crews and phone company officials were called in. After unearthing all the lines, crews were working to build an I-beam to drape the lines across to keep from disrupting telephone service.

Engineers later decided they would tear down the other half of the bridge, but said that could be done late at night over several nights this week, leaving the freeway open for the daily commute.

Meanwhile, the cause of the tanker fire remained under investigation. There was no crash, so investigators planned to look at other factors, such as possible brake or other mechanical failure.

The truck was hauling 9,000 gallons of gasoline when it burst into flames just under the Paramount Boulevard Bridge in Montebello, about 12 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

The driver was not hurt, but the intense flames and heat melted the truck, cratered the road beneath it and cracked the concrete on the overpass so that chunks crashed onto the pavement below.

Tens of thousands of drivers use the freeway daily to commute from communities in eastern Los Angeles County and adjoining Riverside and San Bernardino counties. It also is a main route for trucks delivering vast streams of goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to inland warehouses.

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