SAN FRANCISCO — A gasoline tanker exploded in flames near San Francisco International Airport today, closing U.S. 101 during the rush hour, delaying flights, melting the pavement and spewing a tower of acrid smoke visible for miles. Traffic backed up more than 15 miles.
The Arco tanker, carrying 8,800 gallons of three grades of gasoline, jackknifed just before 6 a.m. and was allowed to burn for almost four hours until foam from airport fire trucks put out the blaze. No serious injuries were reported.
Massive traffic jams stalled city-bound commuters, and authorities reported a backup of 15 miles or more northbound on nearby Interstate 280.
Driver Blacked Out
Arco distribution supervisor Richard Oswald said the driver, Stephen Michael Raigle, 31, had eight years of tanker experience before Arco hired him in July.
Raigle told investigators that he blacked out seconds before his truck slammed into the center guardrail and ground more than 75 feet along the metal rail before overturning, Highway Patrol spokesman Gary Loo said.
The river of flaming fuel melted a strip of pavement across six lanes of the busy highway.
Flight Crews Stuck
Airport information officer Ron Wilson estimated that 50 or more flights were disrupted by the accident, in some cases because flight crews were stuck in the paralyzed traffic.
Some "probably are still on the freeway," Wilson said about four hours after the crash.
The freeway fire prevented easy access to the airport, and some air travelers resorted to carrying their suitcases to terminals in order to catch their scheduled flights.
Southern approaches to the airport were open, but it was difficult to reach them because of the traffic jams.
Two northbound lanes were reopened shortly before 11 a.m, and two southbound transition lanes from onramps were opened about half an hour later, according to the state Department of Transportation.