PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Drivers began longer trips on Monday after an elevated section of Interstate 95 collapsed in Philadelphia a day earlier following damage from a tanker carrying flammable cargo which caught fire.
Sunday’s blaze indefinitely shut down a busy segment of the main east coast north-south highway. Newscasts warned of traffic nightmares and gave advice on detours, urging drivers to take more time to travel.
“This is really going to have a ripple effect across the region,” AAA spokeswoman Jana Tidwell said Monday. She advised people to avoid rush hour.
Tidwell also predicted that drivers would incur additional costs – “more gas, more wear and tear on their cars, extra tolls, in terms of going from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and then back to Pennsylvania.”
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said it was operating three additional trains in the morning and late afternoon on its line from Trenton, New Jersey, and adding capacity to regular lines during peak hours” to help meet the travel needs of the city and region” after the collapse.
Transportation officials warned of major delays and street closures and urged drivers to avoid the area in the northeast corner of the city. Officials said the tanker contained petroleum product that could contain hundreds of gallons of gasoline. The fire took about an hour to bring under control.
The northbound lanes of I-95 disappeared and the southbound lanes were “compromised” by the heat of the fire, said Derek Bowmer, battalion chief for the Philadelphia Fire Department. Runoff from the fire or possibly broken gas pipes caused explosions underground, he added.
Some sort of accident happened on a ramp under northbound I-95 around 6:15 a.m., state Department of Transportation spokesman Brad Rudolph and the northbound section said at above the fire collapsed quickly.
The southbound lanes were heavily damaged, “and we’re assessing that now,” Rudolph said.
Gov. Josh Shapiro, who said Sunday night that he plans to issue a disaster declaration on Monday to expedite federal funds, said at least one vehicle was still stuck under the collapsed roadway.
“We are still working to identify any individual or individuals who may have been caught up in the fire and collapse,” he said. No injuries were reported.
A massive concrete slab fell from I-95 onto the road below. Shapiro said his flight over the area showed “simply remarkable devastation”.
“I found myself thanking the Lord that no motorist that was on I-95 was injured or died,” he said.
Mark Fusetti, a retired Philadelphia police sergeant, said he was driving south toward the city’s airport when he noticed thick black smoke billowing above the highway. As he passed the fire, the road below began to “push in”, creating a noticeable depression that was visible in video he took of the scene, he said.
He saw the traffic in his rearview mirror stop. Soon after, the highway’s northbound lanes collapsed.
“It was crazy timing,” Fusetti said. “For it to deform and collapse so quickly, it’s pretty remarkable.”
The collapsed section of I-95 was part of a $212 million reconstruction project that ended four years ago, Rudolph said. There was no immediate timeline for reopening the freeway, but officials would consider “an alternate situation or temporary structure” to expedite the effort, he said.
Motorists were sent on a 43-mile (69 kilometer) detour, which was “better than it would be on a weekday,” Rudolph said. The fact that the collapse happened on a Sunday helped ease congestion, but he expected traffic “to recede significantly on all diversion areas.
Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Michael Carroll said the I-95 segment carries about 160,000 vehicles a day and is likely the busiest highway in Pennsylvania.
Shapiro said he spoke directly to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and was assured there would be “absolutely no delays” in getting federal funds quickly to rebuild what he has. called a “critical route” in the safest and most efficient way possible.
But Shapiro said the complete reconstruction of I-95 would take “a number of months” and that in the meantime officials were considering “interim solutions to connect the two sides of I-95 in order to route traffic in the region”.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a Twitter post that President Joe Biden had been briefed on the collapse and that White House officials were in contact with Shapiro’s offices. and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to offer assistance. Buttigieg, in a social media post, called it a “major thoroughfare for people and goods” and said the closure would have “significant impacts on the city and region until reconstruction and recovery are complete”.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team to investigate the fire and collapse.
Most drivers traveling in the I-95 corridor between Delaware and New York use the New Jersey Turnpike rather than the segment of freeway where the collapse occurred. Until 2018, drivers had no direct freeway connection between I-95 in Pennsylvania and I-95 in New Jersey. They had to take a few miles of surface roads, with traffic lights, to get from one to the other.
Officials were also concerned about the environmental effects of runoff into the nearby Delaware River.
After a splinter was seen in the Delaware River near the site of the collapse, the Coast Guard deployed a boom to contain the material. Ensign Josh Ledoux said the tanker had a capacity of 8,500 gallons (32,176 liters), but the contents did not appear to be spilling into the environment.
Thousands of tons of steel and concrete have been piled at the site of the fire, and heavy construction equipment would be needed to begin clearing the debris, said Dominick Mireles, director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. .
The blaze was strikingly similar to another fire in Philadelphia in March 1996, when an illegal tire depot under I-95 caught fire, melting railings and warping the sidewalk.
Associated Press writers Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jake Offenhartz in New York and Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.