Workers are racing to shore up a tunnel under the 5 Freeway north of downtown… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Three days after a fiery tanker truck crash destroyed parts of a tunnel underneath the 5 Freeway and jammed traffic throughout northeastern Los Angeles, officials expected that most freeway lanes would reopen in time for the Tuesday morning rush hour.
Sections of the 5 were entirely shut down after the Saturday morning crash inside a tunnel connecting the 2 Freeway with the 5. Two southbound lanes of the 5 reopened Monday and all of the northbound lanes were expected to reopen by Tuesday morning, Caltrans officials said.
"We were pleasantly surprised," said Los Angeles Department of Transportation spokesman Aram Sahakian. The other two lanes of the southbound 5, above the tunnel, will stay closed while Caltrans workers shore up the tunnel's weakened support systems.
A truck carrying 8,500 gallons of gasoline crashed into a wall of the 2 Freeway tunnel Saturday. It burst into "more of a fireball than anything else" that melted guardrails, destroyed light fixtures and cracked concrete, said Mike Miles, Caltrans District 7 director. The tunnel was left blackened and smelling of gasoline, with some steel reinforcement bars exposed.
The tunnel — the only freeway connection between the northbound 2 and the 5 — could remain closed for months, Caltrans said.
Caltrans workers have been laboring nonstop since the accident to build a temporary structure of wood and steel beams inside the tunnel to make sure vibrations and the weight of traffic do not crack the 5 Freeway, said Patrick Chandler, a Caltrans spokesman. Caltrans engineers have yet to determine what type of permanent repairs the bridge will need, or whether the tunnel will have to be entirely replaced.
The concrete in the tunnel walls is so brittle that it crumbles to the touch, Chandler said. The damage could be as deep as 5 inches. "I can walk up to it and knock it off the wall," he said.
Witnesses described a burning stream of fuel coursing through the Los Angeles River, but officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said pollution damage was minimal.
As little as five or six gallons of fuel reached the river, said Andrew Hughan, a department spokesman. Gasoline evaporates quickly and burns at such a high temperature that most was gone when the flames reached the river, he said. A sandbar absorbed much of what was left.
"Nature does an amazing job of cleaning itself," he said, adding that the department would leave what's left to evaporate naturally because digging it up would be more harmful to the environment.
Had the truck been carrying heavier diesel or oil, the situation would have been much worse, Hughan said.
Commuting times for some drivers quadrupled Monday morning because of the crash, according to data provided by traffic tracking company Inrix.
Drivers on the northbound 5 Freeway between the 10 Freeway and the 2 Freeway had it the worst, Inrix said: At 8 a.m., the four-mile drive usually takes seven minutes. On Monday, it took 36 minutes. At 9 a.m., the drive typically takes eight minutes. On Monday, it took 33. Heading south on the same four-mile route typically takes 13 minutes at 8 a.m., Inrix said. On Monday, it took 22. At 10 a.m., the drive typically takes seven minutes. On Monday, it took 24.
"This is four miles," Jamie Holter, a traffic analyst, said in a statement. "You could bike faster, if you could bike on the freeway."
Surface streets seemed, for the most part, a less painful option, according to Inrix's data. The one-mile stretch along Fletcher Drive between Glendale Boulevard and Marguerite Street took six minutes, heading west, as opposed to the usual four.
Taxpayers will initially pay for the repairs. Caltrans will seek reimbursement from the federal government, and it hopes the tanker truck firm's insurance company will pay if the driver is found to be at fault. A California Highway Patrol representative would not release the name of the trucking company because of the ongoing investigation.