Fuel Tanker Melts Bay Bridge Freeway Artery

| Sun Apr. 29, 2007 5:23 PM EDT

If you're from California you've likely already heard about the tanker explosion this morning that will mean tens of millions of dollars in repair work and months of headaches and detours for San Francisco drivers. It happened early this morning, reported at 3:42am, when the driver of a refinery tanker was speeding along a freeway overpass, lost control and the tanker, holding 8,600 gallons of unleaded fuel, hit the guard rail and flipped.

Miraculously, the driver crawled out of the truck and got away before the explosion. James Mosqueda, who was working for Sabek Transportation, apparently walked off the ramp, went to a nearby gas station (the irony) and called a cab to take him to the hospital. A cab? Wonder why he didn't just dial 911?

"A lucky man," said California Highway Patrol officer Trenton Cross. Lucky, yes, but also a man in serious trouble. Not only did $30,000 worth of fuel go up in flames--yes, gas is $3.50 a gallon around here, for regular unleaded-- 250 yards of a double-decker freeway melted. And not just any freeway, but a main artery, part of the MacArthur Maze, which 280,000 commuters drive each day in and out of San Francisco. The B word has been tossed around and if not a billion it will be tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in repair work.

For the forseeable future affected ramps will be closed, clogging alternate routes for what will likely be months. And locals will remember that after the Cypress freeway collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 repairs took years and traffic patterning never really recovered. And the slow progress of the Bay Bridge earthquake retrofit doesn't portend swift action either.

Sabek Transportation and Mosqueda may face charges, it's still too soon to tell. This is not the first tanker accident for Sabek in the area, last June 4,500 gallons of diesel leaked into roadways and streams after a truck overturned on a stretch of highway in Alameda, California.

An interesting note, one engineer who studied the WTC explosions for the National Science Foundation said that the freeway collapse was quite similar. Apparently the fireball erupted precisely at the weak point of the skyway - the underside of the pier where all of the supporting steel girders are bare and unprotected by concrete or anything else, said Berkeley civil engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl. The steel supports were baked at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (the fire reached 2,000 degrees), the point at which steel turns to rubber, causing the steel to buckle and the double-decker freeway to collapse completely.