Nation & World

Tanker fire closes I-75 near Bradenton, Fla

State transportation officials said they don't know yet how long the Interstate 75/U.S. 301 interchange will be closed, nor whether there will be any extended closures as a result of today's fiery wreck.

The fire started when the southbound tanker, fully loaded with petroleum products, was involved in an accident with at least one other vehicle on the interstate and plunged into the southbound lanes of U.S. 301.

Heat from the fire was causing chunks of concrete to fall from the southbound lanes of I-75 onto U.S. 301.

"We may get lucky and get the northbound lanes lane opened. But (Florida Department of Transportation) is evaluating it as we speak," said Bill Hutchison, the county's public safety director.

"Hazmat and EMS and fire responded. We had quite a bit of resources out there," he said. "It's going to be a while cleaning up the mess."

The tanker's driver survived but with severe burns. He was flown to the burn unit at Tampa General Hospital, Emergency Communications Center Capt. Larry Leinhauser said.

The first report of the accident came in to Florida Highway Patrol came in at 4 p.m., and the first troopers arrived at 4:04 p.m.

The Florida Department of Transportation has sent engineers to the crash site to assess the damage, but can't until the Florida Highway Patrol releases the scene, FDOT spokeswoman Lauren Hatchell said at 5:35 p.m.

No additional information about the condition of the interstate was expected this evening.

"We're on hold until FHP gives us the green light," Hatchell said. "Once that happens, we'll go in as fast as we can and go around the clock if it becomes necessary."

Once the clearance is given, engineers likely will assess the structural integrity of the interstate overpass and U.S. 301's pavement, she said. She could not give a timeframe for how long the assessment will take, or when the roads will reopen.

Traffic on 69th Street East, Mocassin Wallow Road, State Road 64 and other detour routes was heavier than usual as drivers bypassed the interchange.

Traffic also was backed up on U.S. 301 as far back as the Erie Road/Old Tampa Road intersection, 2.5 miles east of the accident site, a driver said.

About 83,000 vehicles a day cross over the I-75 bridge, and another 34,000 go underneath it at U.S. 301, according to FDOT data.

County and state transportation officials this evening were mapping out detours for commuter traffic this evening and Thursday morning, said county public works director Ron Schulhofer.

"We'll assist in putting up message boards. We're working on a traffic plan as we speak," Schulhofer said shortly before 6 p.m.

After the accident, rush-hour traffic in downtown Bradenton was so snarled that a police officer took over the flow of vehicles at Manatee Avenue and First Street, near Manatee Memorial Hospital.

"It's a mess out here," the officer said.

Motorists on First Street/U.S. 41 between Manatee and 13th avenues found themselves in gridlock, their cars paralyzed in traffic. Some motorists were out of their vehicles gesturing for traffic to get moving.

Hutchison said crews from around the area responded to the accident but few other details were known.

"We've got everything but the kitchen sink up there working it," Hutchison said. "I don't know what kind of material it was, but judging from the smoke, how high the plume was and how black it was, it looked like petroleum. It was incredible."

Hutchison said the fire burned off all of the fuel and no toxic materials trickeled into the nearby Manatee River. "Most of the fuel has burned off," Hutchison said. "All the hazmat foam we sprayed on the fire is environmentally friendly and it's contained to the fire area between 301 east and west underneath the bridges. There should be no environmental impact, whatsoever."

Video courtesy of BayNews 9