SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) – A crash in a Southern California freeway tunnel quickly turned into a fiery, chain-reaction pileup that mangled several trucks, killed at least two people and shut down the key north-south route as the wreckage burned for hours.

Firefighters began hauling the mangled, blackened debris of more than a dozen big-rig trucks out of the tunnel Saturday afternoon. The crash involved at least 15 trucks and possibly one or more passenger cars, and sent people fleeing for their lives. At least 10 people were injured.

“It looked like a bomb went off,” said Los Angeles County firefighter Scott Clark, one of about 300 firefighters who battled the blaze throughout the night. California Highway Patrol Officer David Porter confirmed Saturday that the bodies of two crash victims had been found in the tunnel. He couldn’t immediately say whether one was a trucker who had been listed as unaccounted for.

Firefighters were just starting to enter the tunnel Saturday afternoon and might find more bodies, said Ron Haralson, Los Angeles County Fire Department inspector.

The pileup in the southbound truck tunnel of Interstate 5 began about 11 p.m. Friday when two big rigs collided. As crashes continued throughout the tunnel, about an eighth of a mile long, five big rigs burst into flames and the fire quickly spread to others.

Firefighters estimated that at least 15 trucks were involved. The cause of the initial crash was being investigated, but authorities said it was raining at the time.

The charred skeletons of at least a half-dozen big rigs could been seen peeking out of the tunnel’s south end Saturday. At least one was carrying produce, and a smoldering load of cabbages lay scattered across the pavement. A pile of charred truck debris protruded from a tunnel wall.

State transportation workers brought in heavy equipment and were helping firefighters haul away the blackened, twisted debris, Haralson said.

As the fire spread Friday night, flames shot out of both ends of the tunnel, rising as high as 100 feet into the air, firefighters at the scene said.

The intense heat caused concrete to crack and melt, sending chucks falling onto a road below throughout the night. Firefighters worried that the damage could cause parts of the tunnel to collapse, particularly if they were to allow many cars back onto a road that runs above it.

Interstate 5 is a key route connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco, as well as a major commuter link between Los Angeles and its northern suburbs. There are likely to be huge traffic jams in the area if it is still closed when people return to work Monday.

By Saturday afternoon, all of the flames appeared to have been extinguished, and firefighters went inside.

The canyon surrounding the tunnel remained filled with thick, acrid smoke, however, and until they examined the wreckage, firefighters said, they wouldn’t be able to tell whether any trucks had been hauling toxic chemicals.

Shortly after the crash 20 people managed to run out of the fiery tunnel, including the 10 injured. Eight were reported to have minor injuries and two had moderate injuries. All were treated at hospitals, mainly for burns and neck and back injuries.

Although the tunnel is designed to carry truck traffic through a mountain pass area, Fire Inspector Jason Hurd said passenger cars may also use it, raising concerns that some might have been trapped inside.

“We’re going to have to do a very methodical search,” Tripp said. “There could be, unfortunately, more people that were not able to escape.”

Hurd couldn’t say when authorities might be able to reopen the section of freeway about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

“It could be another day, it could be days, it could be weeks,” he said.

The section of freeway was shut down twice before, by earthquakes in 1971 and 1994, when large overpasses over canyons collapsed. The worst of the quakes, the Northridge quake of 1994, also damaged another nearby highway, snarling traffic throughout the area.

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) – A late-night crash in a Southern California freeway tunnel quickly turned into a fiery, chain-reaction pileup that mangled several trucks, killed at least two people and shut down the key north-south route as the wreckage burned into Saturday.

The crash late the night before involved five to six big rigs and several passenger cars and sent people fleeing for their lives from the flaming tunnel. At least five of the trucks burst into flames, and the fire spread to the other vehicles. Ten people were injured.

“It looked like a bomb went off,” said Los Angeles County firefighter Scott Clark, one of about 300 firefighters who battled the blaze through the night.

Firefighters began hauling debris out of the tunnel Saturday. Officials hope to reopen the southbound lanes of Interstate 5 by Tuesday morning, but they have been hampered by small lingering fires and concern about whether the tunnel is safe to drive through.

“One of the things hampering us is the continuing fire,” said Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation. “Our goal is to get the roadway open as quickly as possible.”

The bodies of two crash victims were found in the tunnel Saturday, said California Highway Patrol Officer David Porter. He couldn’t immediately say whether one of them was a trucker listed as missing.

Firefighters could find more bodies as they explored the charred tunnel. They hope to finish the search by this morning, said Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp.

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

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 affected 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.

At the crash site Saturday, the charred skeletons of a few big rigs peeked out of the tunnel’s south end. At least one was carrying produce, and a smoldering load of cabbage lay on the pavement. A pile of scorched truck debris protruded from a tunnel wall.

As the fire spread Friday night, flames shot out of both ends of the tunnel, rising as high as 100 feet into the air, firefighters at the scene said.

The intense heat caused concrete to crack crack, melt and explode in a reaction known as spawling that sent chucks falling onto a road below throughout the night. Firefighters worried that the damage could cause parts of the tunnel to collapse, particularly if cars were allowed back on a road that runs above it.

Because the tunnel is made of reinforced concrete, it likely won’t have to be replaced, despite the damage, Kempton said.

By Saturday afternoon, most of the flames appeared to have been extinguished, and firefighters went inside.

The canyon surrounding the tunnel remained filled with thick, acrid smoke, however, and until they examined the wreckage, firefighters said, they wouldn’t be able to tell whether any trucks had been hauling toxic chemicals.

Shortly after the crash, 20 people managed to escape the fiery tunnel on foot, including the 10 injured. Eight were reported to have minor injuries and two had moderate injuries. All were treated at hospitals, mainly for burns and neck and back injuries.

Although the tunnel is designed to carry truck traffic through a mountain pass area, Fire Inspector Jason Hurd said passenger cars may also use it, raising concerns that some might have been trapped inside.

“We’re going to have to do a very methodical search,” Tripp said. “There could be, unfortunately, more people that were not able to escape.”

The section of freeway was shut down twice before, by earthquakes in 1971 and 1994, when large overpasses over canyons collapsed. The worst of the quakes, the Northridge quake of 1994, also damaged another nearby highway, snarling traffic throughout the area.

AP-ES-10-13-07 2135EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.