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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

I-95 overpass collapses in Philadelphia after a tanker fire

A photo provided by the City of Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management shows a part of I-95 collapsed near the Cottman Avenue exit in northeast Philadelphia, on June 11, 2023.

By Amanda Holpuch

Part of Interstate 95 in northeast Philadelphia was shut down in both directions early Sunday morning after a tanker truck believed to be carrying gasoline caught fire, causing part of the highway to collapse, officials said.

The collapse left authorities scrambling for ways to ease the commute on Monday morning as well as for weeks to come and assessing what options they had to make up for the loss of the section of busy highway, which carries about 160,000 vehicles daily.

A tanker driver was on an offramp of Route I-95 North when a crash or other incident sparked a fire below the highway lanes, which run overhead, said Brad Rudolph, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“That structure quickly collapsed with the heat of the fire as big as it was,” he said. “And then the southbound structure was also shut down because it was compromised by the fire as well.”

At a news conference Sunday afternoon, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said that at least one vehicle remained trapped beneath the collapsed roadway and that officials were working to identify “any individual or individuals” who may have been caught in the fire and the collapse, which happened around 6:20 a.m.

He described the scene on the highway as one of “remarkable devastation,” adding, “I found myself, you know, thanking the Lord that no motorists who were on I-95 were injured or died.”

The northbound portion of I-95 had completely collapsed, and the southbound side was not structurally sound, Shapiro said, noting that it would likely take “some number of months” before the highway was repaired.

Shapiro said he would issue a disaster declaration on Monday to expedite that process, and had been assured by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that whatever resources were needed would be provided.

Rudolph said the cause of the fire was still being investigated but that nothing so far suggested it was intentional.

He said the fire was on the ramp from Route I-95 North to Cottman Avenue, which juts out and then goes underneath the highway.

“It seems like it was a vehicle accident,” Rudolph said. “That ramp can be tricky if you’re going at a high rate of speed.”

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Twitter that it was sending a team to conduct a “safety investigation” into the incident.

Dominick Mireles, the director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, said at an earlier news conference that the agency was concerned about the possible “environmental impacts” the fire and collapse could have on the Delaware River, which runs parallel to the damaged section of the highway.

The Philadelphia Water Department, which draws on the Delaware for some of its supply, said there was “no impact to water quality” on Sunday afternoon.

“Philadelphia Water Department staff are continuing to monitor the situation and working with other agencies in the emergency response,” it said.

The area where the fire occurred includes auto shops, construction companies and Four Seasons Total Landscaping, the family-operated business where Rudy Giuliani, then former President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, held a news conference in 2020 as major news organizations began to call the election for President Joe Biden.

All lanes of Route I-95 between the Woodhaven and Aramingo exits, and some nearby streets, were closed Sunday afternoon, the city of Philadelphia said in a news release.

The city advised commuters to plan alternate routes for their weekday commutes and encouraged them to use public transportation. State and local agencies were creating detours, including on Pennsylvania Route 63, Interstate 676 and U.S. Route 1, the city said.

At the news conference Sunday afternoon, Leslie Richards, the general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, said that cars would be added to scheduled trains and that free parking would be made available at three stations.

“This is an emergency that has created a tremendous challenge for our transportation network,” Richards said. “We are all going to need some extra patience in the coming days.”

The repair of similarly damaged roadways took several weeks, said Thomas Gernay, an assistant professor of engineering at Johns Hopkins University, adding that even parts of the overpass that appeared intact could be damaged.

While buildings are protected from fire using sprinkler systems and other means, outdoor highways are not, he added.

“We are in an unlucky situation where the fire occurs just underneath a structure,” he said.

In April, part of Interstate 95 in Connecticut was shut down after a fuel tanker crash on a major bridge. The explosion killed one person and sent home heating oil into the Thames River, officials said.

In 2017, a part of Interstate 85 in Atlanta collapsed because of a fire. The contractor that replaced the damaged roadway, C.W. Matthews, said it took 44 days of uninterrupted work to finish the repairs.

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