Ignite 8,500 gallons of gasoline in a two-lane freeway underpass just north of downtown, and you have a prescription for another round of Carmageddon come Monday morning.
Saturday’s spectacular inferno off the 2 Freeway has forced the indefinite closure of all northbound lanes and two southbound lanes of the 5 Freeway. Although Caltrans isn’t ready to say when traffic will be flowing normally through the area again, the agency is hoping for Tuesday.
That leaves more than 150,000 drivers who use the highway each day needing an alternative route. “We’re advising drivers to avoid the area and to take public transportation,” Caltrans spokesman Patrick Chandler said.
The closure, just north of Dodger Stadium, occurs at one of the worse choke points in Los Angeles’ freeway system.
With the 5 being hemmed in by the L.A. River to the east and the hills of Elysian Park and Silver Lake to the west, alternative routes are not easy to find. With the exception of Riverside Drive, most roads in the area either snake through residential neighborhoods or end in industrial cul-de-sacs.
Aram Sahakian, a city transportation engineer, said Department of Transportation workers were busy Sunday resetting signal timing on surface streets to ease traffic flow. In the morning, traffic officers will be at intersections to help move things along, he said.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that by some miracle, it will reopen by Tuesday morning as the CHP is saying,” Sahakian said.
The fire erupted when a tanker truck overturned in a small tunnel connecting the northbound lanes of the 2 Freeway with the northbound lanes of the 5. Thick black smoke was seen for miles.
The intensity of the tunnel fire has so compromised the roadbed of the 5 that freeway traffic at this point would lead to greater damage, Caltrans said.
Since Saturday, crews have been cleaning up the spilled gasoline that flowed into storm drains and the Los Angeles River, clearing the debris in the tunnel and shoring up the freeway’s roadbed.
Erik Scott, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, walked through the charred tunnel Saturday and said softball-size chunks of concrete had fallen.
Chandler reported that rebar was exposed. “It was so hot that the concrete is now brittle,” he said. “It is like a popcorn ceiling. Crews are chipping away at it with hammers.”
The narrow confines of the tunnel, about 300 feet long and only two lanes and a shoulder wide, magnified the intensity of the blaze.
Caltrans has had experience with freeway fires. In April 2012 a tanker blaze closed the westbound lanes of the 134 Freeway in Glendale. Four months earlier, a tanker truck exploded on the 60 Freeway in Montebello, requiring the demolition and reconstruction of the Paramount Boulevard overpass.
In 2007 a truck crash and fire in a tunnel under the 5 Freeway south of Santa Clarita forced a partial closure for three days. The freeway was temporarily shored up to prevent collapse.
The repairs for the 2 Freeway tunnel will be more extensive than the tunnel in Santa Clarita, according to John Yang, acting deputy district director for maintenance for Caltrans. But it’s too early to say what’s involved.
“Right now we’re working to get the freeway open,” he said. “Once we get the temporary shoring up, then we can begin to see what is required to repair the damage.”
Yang described how Caltrans engineers will have to bore into the concrete, a process similar to a biopsy, to see how deeply damaged the tunnel is.
“It will be a very long process,” Chandler said.
The crash occurred about 10:30 Saturday morning when the tanker truck hit the side of the tunnel and overturned. No one was injured.
The accident created a mini-Carmageddon for tens of thousands of Dodgers fans eager to get to the stadium for a day game. Fortunately, the stadium is now dark until July 25.
Greg Hammond, a captain with the California Highway Patrol’s Central L.A. Command, was not ready to say what caused the accident. “We’re calling it a solo collision,” he said.
The CHP is combing through the hundreds of 911 calls received Saturday morning at the call center that handles freeway emergencies, Hammond said, in hopes that those specific to this accident will provide a clue to the cause.
Times staff writer Catherine Saillant contributed to this story.