Crash Cripples San Francisco Bay Commutes

A single accident near the San Francisco Bay bridge has caused a traffic tie-up that could last for months. Early Sunday, a gasoline tanker truck crashed and burned, destroying a crucial freeway interchange. Now commuters are trying to cope with the loss of a major artery.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You'd have trouble believing that a freeway interchange could collapse in this way if it hadn't really happened. Early yesterday, a gasoline tanker truck ran out of control and exploded near the Bay Bridge outside San Francisco. The flames destroyed a crucial freeway and there is traffic nightmare today in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Joining us now from San Francisco is NPR's Richard Gonzales. And can you just explain why this particular interchange is so critical to that entire area, Richard.

RICHARD GONZALES: Well, Steve, this accident happened in what we call the Maze. And it's a complex of freeways on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay in Oakland where three intestate freeways converge. About 200,000 people or more - motorists - go through that every day, and it's a critical link to the local economy.

The tanker that you referenced exploded at about 3:45 a.m. Sunday morning, when there was virtually no traffic on Interstate 880. It was going south. The heat from that fire caused another ramp above it, on Interstate East 580, to collapse. The whole thing just came down like a - well, like we saw the buildings at the World Trade Center collapse from the heat of the gasoline burning.

So at this stage, if you can imagine people around the country who may have been here on the Bay Area - if you're in Berkeley going south to, say, San Jose, there's now no direct route. If you're going to…

INSKEEP: You mentioned, Richard…

GONZALES: …San Francisco, trying to leave San Francisco going to Oakland, there's no direct route.

INSKEEP: You mentioned 200,000 people. I guess there must be millions of other people who are now stuck behind those 200,000 people in traffic on some other road at this point.

GONZALES: Well, as we speak, the impact of this has not been as great as transit officials expected. People have had 24 hours to cope, to prepare, and to plan alternate routes to get to work. The Bay Area Rapid Transit has extra trains; normally they run about 350,000 people every day. They expect they'll be running a half million people every day. Buses, ferries have been pressed into service. And today all mass transit is free. We're not sure how long that'll last.

INSKEEP: How long is the blockage at this interchange going to last?

GONZALES: We expect it could be months. It'll take months before they can prepare - or repair of these two interstates. They expect demolition will be done in - within a week, but repairing them will be a very major task.

INSKEEP: Are people comparing this to any other disaster?

GONZALES: Well, there was the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, where a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed and just rocked the San Francisco Bay area. This is what we're going through again today.

INSKEEP: And I suppose no matter how many times something like this happens, you can't be prepared for the next one; you never know.

GONZALES: That's correct. People are beginning to understand how fragile the interstate system is. And there's a saying, you know, it's lucky - if there's any good news - that it happened on an early Sunday morning when there's virtually no other traffic on the road.

INSKEEP: There must be some people that have just stayed home today.

GONZALES: I imagine there are a lot of people who are going to be telecommuting this morning.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks very much…

GONZALES: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: …for phoning in. NPR's Richard Gonzales.

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