Commuter traffic barely crawled through Costa Mesa on Monday morning as authorities mopped up oil and debris left on Newport Boulevard after a hit-and-run driver rammed into a gasoline tanker truck, causing it to erupt in flames.
It was amazing, police and fire officials said, that there were no injuries in the 1 a.m. collision and resulting fireball, which was so intense that it melted four traffic signals at the intersection.
Police said an unidentified man driving a 1976 Dodge station wagon sideswiped a pickup truck stopped at a red light and then careened into the double-tank truck as it was turning into a service station at Newport Boulevard and 19th Street.
One of two tanks in the rig ruptured, then exploded into flames, according to Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Tom Curtis. The rig's second tank--each one holds about 5,000 gallons--also was leaking, Curtis said.
The station wagon driver climbed out a car window and fled on foot in the moments after the crash, police said. The car was gutted by fire.
One witness told officers she thought she saw or heard a woman passenger in the station wagon screaming for help, but other witnesses told police that the man was alone in the vehicle.
Lt. Mike Millington said the driver of the Unocal rig, identified as Michael Edward Perry, 34, of Los Angeles, was "awful lucky" to have survived the fiery collision.
It took only 20 minutes to extinguish the flames but a total of 10 hours to restore and reopen Newport Boulevard, one of two major north-south arteries through Costa Mesa.
Special absorbent foam used in fire and toxic chemical incidents soaked up some of the spill, but hazardous materials experts and firefighters had to wait for the ruptured tank to cool and for special equipment to arrive from Los Angeles before they could pump the remaining gasoline into another vessel. The equipment did not arrive until after 5:30 a.m., and the pumping took four hours.
Meanwhile, traffic was diverted onto Harbor Boulevard, where cars backed up for miles. Some commuters said they were 40 minutes to an hour late for work because of the bottleneck.
Police said two secondary north-south routes--Irvine Boulevard at the eastern edge of Costa Mesa and Placentia Avenue on the west side--also were heavily congested before the signals on Newport Boulevard were repaired and the tanker wreckage was towed away.