Tens of thousands of commuters were caught in a horrendous traffic jam, an estimated 1,000 Culver City residents were evacuated and 10 people were treated for breathing difficulties Tuesday morning after a tanker truck broke apart on the San Diego Freeway, spewing out 25 tons of molten sulfur that set off a series of small fires and sent an evil-smelling cloud of fumes into the air.
The accident closed all northbound lanes of the busy freeway at 4:18 a.m., and they remained closed through the evening rush hour. Officials said normal operations were not expected until after midnight.
At one point, the California Highway Patrol estimated that traffic was backed up from the Washington Boulevard overpass south to the Harbor Freeway, a distance of about 21 miles.
The southbound lanes were shut down from 4:30 a.m. until shortly after 9 a.m. The interchange between the Santa Monica and the San Diego freeways also was closed for several hours.
Surface streets, pressed into service as alternate routes, also became jammed with traffic.
The evacuation of residents was launched on the basis of an erroneous initial report from the truck driver that the cylindrical tank might have contained deadly sulfur tetrafluoride, Culver City Fire Marshal Russ Mathewson said.
"We treated it as a worst-case scenario, because we're looking out for the people and that's what we do," Mathewson explained.
The sulfur was heated to about 290 degrees Fahrenheit. When struck by water, it turns into toxic sulfuric acid, he said.
Although sparks showering from the skidding, ruptured tanker apparently touched off several minor fires on the freeway's surface, they were quickly extinguished by Culver City and Los Angeles firefighters using "light water," a foam created by injecting special chemicals into the water sprayed on the flames.
Mathewson and Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Gary Svider said the decision to call in a helicopter to fly low over the area and use loud-speakers to advise residents to evacuate was "a consensus decision" by all agencies involved.
Mathewson said a 20-square-block area was cleared, and estimated the number of evacuees at 1,000.
'A Great Excitement'
At an evacuation center set up at the Fox Hills Mall, Pamela Paskell, who said she lives about two blocks from the accident scene, described the event as "a great excitement."
"We have visitors from Australia," she said, "and about 5:15 a.m. we heard the helicopter. . . . I just ran through the house yelling, 'Get up! Get dressed! We've got to go!' "
Shortly before 8 a.m., the evacuees were told that they could return to their homes.
The tractor was pulling an insulated, 40-foot cylindrical tank that was divided in three sections. The tank was mounted on a three-axle trailer.
Felt Slight Bump
Driver Robert Goodrum, 50, of Lynwood, told officers that he felt a slight bump, then the rear section of the tank broke away. The tank wreckage, which was empty, careened over the side of the freeway and down an embankment.
The second, or middle section, of the tank, loaded with the molten sulfur, dropped onto the freeway's concrete surface, tore open and began spewing the sulfur.
Goodrum, who had managed to keep the tractor and the remainder of the trailer upright, skidded to a stop and leaped to safety.
Bruce Bryant, manager of Shaen Magan Trucking Co. of Bakersfield, owner of the rig, praised Goodrum for his skill.
"He did an excellent job of keeping the vehicle upright," Bryant said.
Bryant said the accident may have been the result of a structural failure of one of the three sections of the steel tank.
"I can't be definite," he said, "but about a year ago, this (same) truck suffered metal fatigue, and the rupture (Tuesday) took place right where they put (welded on) the new partition."
The CHP said it was Goodrum who first told them that he thought the cargo was the more dangerous sulfur tetrafluoride.
Bryant said Goodrum, who has been employed by his company for only about 10 days, was unfamiliar with the cargo. But he said the driver offered to go back into the cab and get the bill of lading to determine what the chemical was. Bryant said firefighters refused the offer for fear Goodrum might be overcome by the fumes.
It was not until three hours after the accident that the Los Angeles Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Entry Team entered the cab and determined that the chemical was molten sulfur, which had been loaded onto the truck at Chevron USA's El Segundo refinery.
A spokesman for Chevron said molten sulfur is a byproduct of refining heavy crude oil, and is used extensively in the manufacture of fertilizers.
Goodrum, two Los Angeles firefighters and eight other people were treated at Brotman Memorial Hospital for breathing difficulties and dizziness and released, authorities said.