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Los Angeles

Tanker Truck Blast Kills Driver, Forces Evacuations

The big rig overturns after swerving to avoid a car abandoned in the right lane of the 710. The owner of that vehicle is arrested.

September 24, 2003|Sharon Bernstein and Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writers

A northbound tanker carrying 9,000 gallons of gasoline overturned and exploded on the Long Beach Freeway in Bell Gardens early Tuesday, killing the driver and forcing the evacuation of about 150 residents.

William Schenk, 62, a veteran driver for Arco and its parent company, BP, died in a fireball that neighbors said was visible for blocks, after his truck swerved to avoid a car that had been abandoned on the freeway near Clara Street about 2 a.m.

"There was a lot of smoke and commotion, and people were running," said Antonio Cardenas, who was evacuated to a nearby park with his wife, teenage children and other family members. "I saw a big ball of fire in two places."

The cleanup after the accident snarled traffic well into the afternoon. The California Department of Transportation closed the 710 from the Century Freeway to the Santa Ana Freeway until about 2:20 p.m.

For some neighbors, the incident confirmed fears that the freeway, which carries nearly 50,000 big rigs per weekday, poses a danger to their community. Although they believe that the freeway needs to be modernized and improved, they fear losing their homes or risking more accidents if it is widened.

"These communities are at great risk from hazardous spills and from diesel-truck traffic," said Gilbert Estrada, public health organizer with Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group that focuses on environmental health and related issues. He has opposed a proposed expansion of the freeway.

"It's just a matter of time before something very serious happens," involving more than one death, said Rosa Carrillo, a Bell Gardens resident who lives five houses away from the freeway and could lose her home to an expansion.

The owner of the abandoned car, Manuel Godines, 26, was arrested Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of manslaughter, said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Kevin Gordon. Godines had apparently lost control of the vehicle, which went up the embankment and ended up facing the wrong direction. He left the car in the right-hand lane about 2 a.m., Gordon said.

At least one driver phoned the CHP to report the abandoned vehicle, which did not have its hazard lights on, the sergeant said. Schenk's truck swerved and jackknifed three to six minutes after the call came in, Gordon said, while officers were still on their way.

"That's just tragic," said BP external affairs chief Walter Neil, who, after visiting the scene, described the tanker as looking "like a beer can opened up."

Schenk was a 36-year employee who had never had an accident driving the double-tankers across Southern California, Neil said. The driver had filled up his tanks at the company's South Gate facility and entered the freeway at Firestone Boulevard to make deliveries to service stations.

Gasoline ran into the sewers Tuesday morning, said resident Cardenas, 64, prompting neighbors to evacuate in pajamas and slippers.

"The freeway should be used for the cars or the small trucks," he said. "Most of the accidents here are the big trucks like this one."

Stephanie Williams, vice president of the California Trucking Assn., said tanker-truck accidents involving gasoline are rare but often deadly.

"Any time you have a petroleum tank accident, it's a bad accident," she said. In "the majority of these accidents with gasoline and natural gas, the driver dies."

Like the neighbors, Williams said she was concerned that the freeway -- old, crowded and full of potholes -- was unsafe. "The 710 is a freeway that needs help," she said.

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