April 29, 2007 / 4:27 PM / 12 years ago

Fiery crash melts vital San Francisco highway

EMERYVILLE, California (Reuters) - A stretch of vital highway for San Francisco Bay area commuters collapsed on Sunday after a gas tanker truck crashed and ignited flames that shot more than 200 feet high, officials said.

City employees inspect a collapsed highway in Oakland, California, April 29, 2007. A stretch of vital highway for San Francisco Bay Area commuters collapsed on Sunday after a fuel truck crashed and ignited flames more than 200 feet (60 metres) high, the California Highway Patrol said. REUTERS/Kimberly White

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom quickly ruled out sabotage or terrorism, but said the accident showed the region’s infrastructure remains dangerously vulnerable.

Flames on a lower ramp melted the upper deck of a highway on the Oakland/Emeryville side leading to the double-decker Bay Bridge that connects the heavily populated East Bay to San Francisco. As the steel structure weakened, a concrete slab fell onto the ramp below.

“The damage is significant, there will be disruptions to traffic, but it will be limited to the two ramps,” said Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation.

The truck driver was hospitalized with burns and was reported to be in stable condition. Officials said the scant traffic in the middle of the night prevented further injuries and accidents.

Officials are working on commuter contingency plans for Monday, the next few weeks and possibly months, telling drivers to avoid the web of highways known as the “Oakland Maze.”

The two ramps are used by nearly 500,000 vehicles every day, the California Highway Patrol said. Many workers use the highway to get to work in San Francisco from their homes in the East Bay, although a subway system is also available.

Bay Bridge, around a half mile from the closed interchange, remained open and was accessible from another highway. A section of the bridge had collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, but was reopened 30 days later.

“There is no evidence of foul play,” said Mayor Newsom from the California Democrats’ annual convention in San Diego.

The cause of the crash was not known, but the California Highway Patrol said there was no evidence the driver had been using drugs or alcohol.

Caltrans’ Kempton said the vehicle was “allegedly traveling at a high rate of speed or over the speed limit at least and went out of control.”

Newsom said the accident was a wake-up call about vulnerability from natural and man-made disaster. “These unfortunate events are opportunities to remind people that our infrastructure is not where it needs to be,” he said.

Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in San Diego and Mary Milliken in Los Angeles

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