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The Unreported I-880 Fire

MapQuest is the preferred mode of navigation for the young folks, but it doesn’t always provide the best route. When Vernon paid a rare visit from Oregon to Alameda, Mapquest steered him (after a 10-hour drive with his wife and two boys) East onto Highway 24 instead of South onto Interstate 880. Vernon had said, “Don’t worry, we use MapQuest,” as I was giving him detailed directions about traversing the MacArthur Maze.

Even if MapQuest had given Vern the most direct route to Alameda, it would not have prepared him adequately for this poorly designed web of concrete. Driving south on I-80, as you pass Emeryville, you should be in the third lane from the right. The two right-hand lanes veer off to the Bay Bridge and San Francisco. The third lane widens into a Y with one branch veering right to the bridge and one continuing straight. Almost immediately this lane rises, along with the lane to its left, and drivers going 55 mph either bear right onto a ramp connecting to I-880 South (a relatively simple shot from the right lane, although the road is improperly banked), or left towards Hwy 24 East. As a result of the road’s lay-out, drivers are constantly criss-crossing lanes. It is a tribute to the human brain and body that we can hurtle around in tons of steel on rubber wheels at high speeds and do it safely so much of the time.

In the wee small hours of April 29 a truck carrying 8,600 gallons of gasoline overturned on the I-880 connector, the driver having lost control, evidently, at the spot I try to warn visitors about. The resulting fire softened the steel pillars supporting a roadbed crossing above (I-580) and melted bolts and connecting parts. As the flames rose, the upper road literally slid down onto the lower one.

Seeking to allocate blame for the fire, the media initially focused on the truck driver, James Mosqueda, who had done time for heroin possession in the mid-1990s. “California Highway Patrol officials said the investigation of the crash is continuing, but that Mosqueda appears to have been driving at an unsafe speed in a 50 mph zone,” wrote Damian Bulwa in the San Francisco Chronicle April 30. An opportunistic state assemblyman from Santa Barbara, Pedro Nava, a Democrat, called a press conference to demand stricter licensing requirements. Nava said it was “reprehensible” that Mosqueda had been allowed to drive the truck, even 10 years after he’d paid his debt to society.

The undisputed hero in the media has been the California Department of Transportation, whose honchos promptly hired a contractor to begin repairs. “Caltrans Starting To Get Some Respect” declared a big page-one headline in the Chronicle. The subhed added: “Under Director Will Kempton, agency praised for its handling of many major projects, including the MacArthur Maze collapse.” Kiss, kiss, kiss.

Locals who have been paying close attention think Caltrans and/or the CHP may have been responsible for the freeway meltdown itself. They want to know more about the handling of a fire that occurred on the very same stretch of road four hours before the inferno and did not get widely reported. We happened to hear an eye-witness’s account on a local TV station. He’d seen a car on fire from underneath. The apparently oblivious driver was standing nearby talking on a cellphone. The eyewitness, a very good Samaritan, stopped and pulled the driver, who was extremely drunk, away from the car, which then blew up. Was one of those pillars smoldering between 11:55 p.m. (time of the first fire) and 3:51 a.m. (time of the meltdown)? Was foam used to put out the first fire? Had fuel been spilled on the road? Who handled the clean-up? Should the road have remained closed?

A letter remarking the first fire appeared in the May 4 Alameda Journal, from Jim Strehlow:

“People report the accident at the Maze occurred at 3:51 a.m. Sunday morning. I drove on southbound Interstate 80 past the maze intersection at 11:55 p.m. Saturday night. I noticed dead-stop traffic to Interstate 880 southbound in the two right hand lanes. Other traffic including myself used the two southbound Interstate 580 lanes. I noticed a huge fire then on southbound I-880. The smoke carried onto I-580. Were there two separate accidents? Did the Saturday 11:55 p.m. accident create the set of circumstances that led to some second ‘3:51 a.m.’ tanker fire? You should get solid information about the Saturday night 11:55 p.m. accident.

“I would have expected such an accident and traffic tie-up to have required three to four hours to solve -just about the time of the ‘second’ 3:51 a.m. fire. Maybe officials did not properly handle the Saturday night fire on southbound I-880 properly. Maybe the freeway section finally collapsed at 3:51 a.m.; but some huge fire on I-880 occurred late Saturday night-Sunday morning.”

If the Alameda Journal doesn’t investigate the first fire, it will be up to Caltrans and/or the CHP -the very agencies responsible for cleaning and re-opening the road.

Another relevant letter ran in the Chronicle, from John V. Burke: “Loaded tanks of liquid are especially difficult to handle, as I know from my experience as a locomotive engineer. Wave dynamics can build up in the tanks so that they surge back and forth or side to side, making it very difficult to control speed and stopping distance. Though I don’t know the details of the MacArthur Maze crash, I think there’s a good possibility the driver lost control because wave action in the tanks was throwing him around the road when he went into a curve. One way to reduce incidents like this would be for the PUC to prohibit double-header tanks of hazardous materials.”

According to UC Berkeley civil engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh, the I-580 overpass had been built unnecessarily close to the I-880 connector (only 20 feet above), increasing the chance that a hot fire on the lower road would damage the upper one. Astaneh is a true authority, with 35 years’ experience analyzing disasters, including the collapse of the World Trade Center. Rueful that the girders from the Twin Towers had been carted off to a scrap yard and then shipped to China for recycling before he and his colleagues could study them, Astaneh and a grad student hastened to the site of the I-880 fire as demolition work began and took photos and collected samples. Astaneh’s stature as an engineer helped him gain access from the crew doing the work. Caltrans officials would have stalled him for three days, he says.

Astaneh devoted most of last week to supervising final exams. His preliminary look at the materials taken from the pillars revealed troubling cracks. “We don’t know how many cracks are where,” says the good professor. Caltrans, meanwhile, has re-opened the I-880 connector (the lower road) to great fanfare in the media, and is being lauded for promising the contractor a $200,000-per-day bonus if the elevated section of I-580 re-opens before June 27. Caltrans director Will Kempton has declared to the media, “The system is safe. This was a freak accident.” Somebody should tell him we have earthquakes in this region. The system may be safe, whatever that means, but the pillars are cracked.

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the Journal of Cannabis in Clinical Practice (soon to have a presence on the web). He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

 

 

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Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

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