A tire blowout on the hot San Diego Freeway in Irvine on Friday triggered a gasoline tanker fire that a California Highway Patrol spokesman said "basically pulverized the pavement," closing the thoroughfare and causing a massive traffic jam.
Just before 1 p.m. a tire exploded under the cab of a tandem fuel truck heading south with 9,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline, CHP spokesman Paul Caldwell said. The driver, John Gillihan, 38, of Chino, said he steered the rig onto the shoulder of the freeway near the University Drive exit.
"I pulled over and saw that my tire had started to catch fire," said Gillihan, who was uninjured. "I put it out and called for help on the radio in the cab."
However, a second tire caught fire and exploded while Gillihan was calling for help, and the first tire flared up again, igniting leaking fuel from the tank closest to the cab.
Orange County firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes. It took nearly 40 firefighters more than an hour to bring the spectacular blaze completely under control, and according to Caldwell the roadway in lanes 3 and 4 southbound was so superheated that some resurfacing was needed before it could be reopened.
CHP officers on the scene closed the southbound freeway from Culver Drive to Jeffrey Road, along with several auxiliary roads, and directed other southbound traffic across the grassy median strip and into the northbound lanes. At the northbound junction of Interstates 5 and 405, police blocked off the feed lanes into the 405 and diverted all traffic onto the 5, causing a backup. A jam also occurred on the Costa Mesa Freeway as drivers sought alternate routes.
No other vehicles were involved in the fire, thanks to the efforts of two passers-by who directed traffic away from the blaze until firefighters arrived. Gillihan said he was amazed that drivers slowed to watch, despite the flames and billowing black smoke.
Both the cab and the first tanker were reduced to a heap of molten metal, but the second tanker was saved by firefighters using foam to cool the tank's surface. The rig, owned by the J. E. DeWitt Co. of El Monte, was carrying Texaco gasoline from Orange County to the San Diego Naval Station, the driver said.
Gillihan, who said he has been a driver for 16 years, remained at the scene to wait for the gasoline from the second tanker to be pumped out. According to Mark Reinhold, a Fire Department spokesman at the scene, another 100 gallons of fuel leaked into a storm drain.
All northbound lanes were reopened about two hours after the accident, as were lanes 1 and 2 in the southbound 405. But it was about 6 p.m.before the remaining southbound lanes were again ready for use. Even then, said the CHP, traffic remained clogged on the freeway for several miles. Irvine police reported heavy surface-street congestion as late as 7 p.m. because of the freeway disruption.
Gillihan, who was not cited by police, said he did not consider himself especially lucky to have escaped unscathed.
"I had the Lord right there with me," the driver said. "He's taking care of me." Although, he added, "it got scary when the fire extinguisher ran out."