Part of major US highway collapses after fire in Philadelphia

Video from the scene shows a massive slab, covering an entire section of the northbound lanes, collapsed onto the surface roadway in northeast Philadelphia.

A general view shows the partial collapse of Interstate 95 after a fire underneath an overpass in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Interstate 95 has partially collapsed after a fire underneath an overpass in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the US [City of Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management/Reuters]

A large vehicle fire under an elevated section of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia has caused a huge portion of the highway to collapse, an incident likely to have long-lasting repercussions for travelers.

Video from the scene showed a massive slab covering an entire section of the northbound lanes collapsed onto the surface roadway in northeast Philadelphia. Officials said there were no reports of injuries.

Captain Derek Bowmer of the Philadelphia Fire Department said emergency crews responding shortly before 6:30am (10:30 GMT) on Sunday to an accident report found heavy fire from a vehicle or vehicles.

Early reports indicated a vehicle may have been a tanker truck, but officials said that had not yet been confirmed. The fire was reported to be under control.

Interstate 95 is the main highway in the eastern United States linking major centres such as New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC and running all the way south to Florida state.

Mark Fusetti, a retired Philadelphia police sergeant, said he was driving south toward the city’s airport when he noticed thick plumes of black smoke rising over the highway. As he passed the fire, the road beneath began to “dip”, creating a noticeable depression that was visible in video he took of the scene.

He saw traffic in his rearview mirror come to a halt. Soon after, the northbound lanes of the highway crumbled. “It was crazy timing,” Fusetti said. “For it to buckle and collapse that quickly, it’s pretty remarkable.”

Explosions underground

Bowmer said the northbound lanes were gone and the southbound lanes were “compromised” because of the heat from the fire.

He also said runoff from the fire or perhaps compromised gas lines were causing explosions underground. Officials said they were also concerned about the environmental impacts of runoff into the nearby Delaware River.

“Today’s going to be a long day. And obviously, with 95 northbound gone and southbound questionable, it’s going to be even longer than that,” said Dominick Mireles, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management.

Heavy construction equipment would be required to start to remove the debris, he said.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the closure of I-95 will have “significant impacts” on the region and the city of Philadelphia. Buttigieg said on Twitter he was coordinating with regional leaders for recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Other streets were closed for the response and officials urged people to avoid the area. They also said they planned to launch a drone to assess the damage.

Sunday’s fire was strikingly similar to another blaze in Philadelphia in March 1996, when an illegal tyre dump under I-95 caught fire, melting guard rails and buckling the pavement.

The highway was closed for several weeks and partial closures lasted for six months. Seven teenagers were charged with arson. The dump’s owner was sentenced up to 14 years in prison and ordered to pay $3m of the $6.5m repair costs, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

More recently in Atlanta, a massive fire collapsed an elevated portion of Interstate 85, shutting down the heavily traveled route through the heart of the city in March 2017.

A homeless man was accused of starting the blaze, but federal investigators said in a report the state transportation department’s practice of storing combustible construction materials under the highway increased the risk of fire.

Source: News Agencies