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Tanker truck blast closes 91 Freeway for eight hours

A tanker truck explosion closed one of the Southland’s busiest freeways for more than eight hours Friday, creating havoc for hundreds of thousands of commuters and motorists trying to get a start on the Memorial Day weekend.

Traffic backed up for miles in Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties starting about 10:30 a.m. after the truck, loaded with 8,800 gallons of gasoline, overturned and burned in the eastbound lanes of the 91 Freeway in Corona.

California Highway Patrol officers said three people were taken to hospitals for minor to moderate injuries. The truck driver was not injured.

The wreck prompted the CHP to close the eastbound lanes of the freeway at Green River Road. The westbound lanes were closed at the 71 Freeway for safety reasons, as was the southbound 71 at Euclid Avenue.

All of the 91’s westbound lanes, which head to Orange County, were reopened about 2:45 p.m. Three eastbound lanes were reopened about 7 p.m. But the carpool lane and two other lanes will remain closed until the California Department of Transportation can inspect the pavement for damage and make repairs if necessary.

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The 91 is one of the most congested highways in Southern California and the only major corridor between Orange and Riverside counties. During the typical workweek, motorists often make more than 300,000 trips a day on the freeway — a flow that mostly heads west during the morning rush hour and reverses direction for the evening commute.

“Traffic was backed up on most of the arterials and the freeways,” said CHP Officer Maurice Walker. “This is the Memorial Day weekend. There were a lot of people trying to get somewhere for the holiday.”

Walker cautioned that motorists traveling east on the 91 during the weekend are likely to be delayed because the three closed lanes will create a bottleneck.

According to the CHP, the tanker was involved in a chain-reaction crash triggered by another truck that collided with a Mitsubishi sedan and the tanker. Trying to take evasive action, the driver of the tanker lost control and struck a Honda. The tanker then flipped over before exploding in a fireball.

Walker said the impact forced the Honda over the center divider into the westbound lanes, where it struck two other vehicles.

“I was about three cars back, so all I saw was the tanker sliding across. It hit the center divider, went airborne and burst into flames,” said Brandon Leger, a motorist who saw the crash. “It was unreal.”

Witnesses said the flames rose more than 100 feet and created a column of smoke that could be seen for about 30 miles to the east. Firefighters let the blaze burn itself out, which took several hours.

dan.weikel@latimes.com


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