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(Paul Sakuma/ Associated Press)

Tanker blaze collapses Calif. highway

Bay Area braces for traffic jams, costly repairs

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A gasoline tanker crashed and burst into flames near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge yesterday, creating such intense heat that a section of highway melted and collapsed. Officials predicted a traffic nightmare for Bay Area commuters for weeks or months to come.

Flames shot 200 feet in the air, but the truck's driver walked away from the scene with second-degree burns. No other injuries were reported in the 3:45 a.m. crash, which officials said could have been deadly had it occurred at a busier time.

"I've never seen anything like it," Officer Trent Cross of the California Highway Patrol said . "I'm looking at this thinking, 'Wow, no one died -- that's amazing.' It's just very fortunate."

Authorities said the damage could take months to repair, and that it would cause the worst disruption for Bay Area commuters since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged a section of the Bay Bridge itself.

Nearly 75,000 vehicles use the portion of the road every day. But because the accident occurred where three highways converge, authorities said it could cause commuting problems for hundreds of thousands of people. State transportation officials said 280,000 commuters take the bridge into San Francisco daily.

Yesterday the collapse doubled the half-hour trip drivers normally face getting to and from San Francisco and the eastern suburbs -- even though many didn't even attempt the trip because of the collapse. Traffic appeared light on the bridge itself, but motorists looking to get on and off were backed up on both sides.

Transportation officials said they already have added trains to the Bay Area Rapid Transit light rail system that takes commuters across San Francisco Bay, and hope to increase its capacity by about half. They also are urging people to telecommute if possible.

In preparation for rush hour, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger authorized funds so ferries, buses, and the rail system can carry commuters free of charge during today's commute.

State officials said motorists who try to take alternate routes today instead of relying on public transportation will face nightmarish commutes.

The tanker, carrying 8,600 gallons of gasoline, ignited after crashing into a pylon on the interchange, which connects westbound lanes of Interstate 80 to southbound I-880, on the edge of downtown Oakland half a mile from the Bay Bridge's toll plaza.

The driver, James Mosqueda, 51, of Woodland, was headed from a refinery in Benicia to a gas station near the Oakland Airport when the accident occurred, according to the California Highway Patrol. He was hospitalized in stable condition. A preliminary investigation indicated that Mosqueda may have been speeding on the curving road, the Highway Patrol said. There was no evidence he had been using drugs or alcohol, and officials do not believe foul play was involved.

The fire melted the interchange from eastbound I-80 to eastbound I-580, located above the first interchange, causing a 250-yard section of the roadway to collapse onto the roadway below, according to the highway patrol. Witnesses reported seeing flames and smoke from the blaze from miles away.

Heat exceeded 2,750 degrees and caused the steel beams supporting the highway above to buckle, and melted the bolts holding the structure together, said Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation. Late yesterday morning, the charred section of collapsed freeway was draped at a sharp angle onto the highway beneath, exposing a web of twisted metal beneath the concrete.

The cost of the repairs is likely to run into the tens of millions of dollars, and the state is seeking federal disaster aid, Kempton said. Schwarzenegger issued an emergency declaration yesterday to allow repairs to happen faster, said Adam Mendelsohn, the governor's spokesman.

The Bay Bridge consists of two heavily traveled, double-decked bridges about 2 miles long straddling San Francisco Bay.

The bridge, which is about a half mile from the closed interchange, remained open yesterday, accessible from another highway. Many workers use the highway to get to work in San Francisco from their homes in the East Bay.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the accident shows how vulnerable the Bay Area's transportation network is, whether to an earthquake or terrorist attack. He pointed out the potential for a major economic effect on the city. "It's another giant wakeup call," Newsom told reporters at the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego.

A section of the Bay Bridge that collapsed in the 1989 earthquake was reopened 30 days later.

The 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake, which was centered south of San Francisco, collapsed a portion of the upper deck of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge on Oct. 17, 1989. One woman was killed in that collapse.

The affected segment was repaired, but engineers have determined that the bridge, which opened in 1936, probably would not survive another major earthquake. In 2005, the governor signed legislation approving construction of a replacement bridge, scheduled for completion in 2012.