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Fixing Key Route Will Be Slow Going

It will take about two weeks to erect a temporary bridge for I-95, where a searing fire buckled the elevated highway to New York.

March 28, 2004|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — As Gilbert Robinson crawled out of his shattered windshield after his oil tanker crashed on Interstate 95 Thursday night, he wasn't thinking of how the accident might foul up traffic on the Northeast's main corridor for weeks. As his truck, filled with 12,000 gallons of heating oil, began to burn, he said, he was only thinking one thing: "Run, baby, run!"

From a hundred feet away, Robinson watched his truck explode into a fireball, the oil fueling an inferno so hot it melted and buckled a section of the elevated highway, cutting a vital link for the 120,000 or so commuters and truck drivers who take this route each day. Its closure has forced cars and trucks into slow-moving detours, adding hours and expense to their routes.

Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland declared the crash a disaster area Friday, and on Monday, with U.S. Assistant Secretary of Transportation Emil Frankel, will officially announce that the state will receive $11.2 million in federal highway aid.

On Saturday, workers had demolished the southbound lane of the elevated highway and prepared to replace it with a temporary bridge, a task that is expected to take about two weeks.

"It's like a giant erector set," said Department of Transportation's chief engineer Arthur Gruhn. "We bring in panelized pieces and bolt them together." The northbound lane could be reopened as early as midweek, Gruhn said.

The results of the accident have been serious, but not as bad as early predictions suggested. Weekend traffic was light, and though it snaked slowly through a downtown Bridgeport detour, it was moving.

"People have been following the detours or just avoiding the area," said state police spokesman J. Paul Vance.

He said authorities were braced for Monday traffic to be worse than the weekend's, but hoped that normal flows could resume in two weeks. "We'll be working 24 hours a day until it's done," Vance said.

Dramatic news footage and pictures of the Thursday night conflagration helped alert drivers to the problem, and the area's many New York commuters have been able to take the 90-minute train ride to the city.

A Metro-North spokesman said that they had not experienced problems Friday, but were prepared to add extra stops on Monday to accommodate more passengers if necessary.

At the Bridgeport train station, commuter parking lots halved their fees from $6 to $3 for daily parking until repairs are done.

But a few confused truckers and motorists further slowed the stop-and-go traffic, leaning out their windows for directions from police lining the alternate route. "There are a lot of trucks on the C.B. right now, begging for information," said Chris Bierly, a local oil tanker driver who knows the shortcuts. "They say the cops are sending them in circles."

Trucking associations warned their clients that the delays and detours might lead to higher costs for deliveries, gas and overtime wages.

Repairs would have been simpler and quicker if the accident had not happened on the bridge. "Forty feet either direction and we could have just repaired the road and been on our way," said Vance, gesturing at the blackened concrete span being jackhammered into rubble.

But the intense heat made the steel girders that supported the bridge so hot they glowed red and sagged nearly to the street below. Flames shot up 50 feet, and lights in the area flickered as the fire licked power lines.

"It was like a river of fire" as flames ignited the fuel pouring over the bridge onto the street, said firefighter Isaias Rodriguez, who was one of the first on the scene Thursday night. "It was the most amazing fire I've seen since I've been a fireman."

The accident happened at 7:45 p.m. Thursday when a Toyota Corolla lost control and struck Robinson's truck, according to the police report. His tanker skidded along the concrete barrier, knocking over several light poles and rupturing the fuel tank.

The car's driver, Sarah Waddle, was not seriously injured, and Robinson was released from the hospital after minor treatment. "I'm OK," he said Saturday morning. "I was glad nobody else got hurt."

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