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2750 degree fire melts bridge steel beams { April 30 2007 }

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April 30, 2007, 1:39PM
Bay Area drivers brace for afternoon commute
Many seek public transportation after accident damages freeway

Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. The threat of a nightmarish morning commute led many Bay Area residents to use public transportation today, one day after a fiery tanker crash caused a heavily trafficked section of freeway to collapse.

Westbound traffic into the city largely flowed as usual this morning, except for drivers slowing on interchange lanes headed to the Bay Bridge to look at the damage.

But officials warned the afternoon drive would bring bigger headaches as traffic leaving the city is diverted away from the collapsed eastbound segment.

The elevated section of highway that carries motorists from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to a number of freeways was destroyed early Sunday when the heat of a burning gasoline tanker truck weakened part of one overpass, crumpling it onto another.

"I'm mad," said Crystal McSwain, who has a commuter pass to take a trans-bay bus but switched to the more expensive Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system. "My life is upside down, and I don't know how long it's going to take."

Authorities predicted that overall the crash would cause the worst disruption for commuters since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Bay Bridge itself. The sight of the soaring freeway twisted into a fractured mass of steel and concrete was reminiscent of that quake's damage.

"The most worrisome thing is the afternoon commute coming out of San Francisco toward the maze because the traffic from the Bay Bridge fans out from across three freeways," said Jeff Weiss, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation. "Taking away two-thirds of the capacity is really going to cause a bottleneck."

Nearly 75,000 vehicles used the damaged portion of the road every day. But because the accident occurred where three highways converge, authorities said it could cause problems for hundreds of thousands of commuters. State transportation officials said 280,000 commuters take the Bay Bridge into San Francisco each day.

To encourage motorists to switch to public transit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger authorized free passage today on ferries, buses and the BART rail system. Extra trains were added and bus and ferry operators also expanded service.

Parking lots at outlying rail stations filled up earlier than usual for the morning commute. Some trains appeared more crowded than usual, but BART officials said overall ridership did not appear greater than normal. Riders likely delayed their morning commute to avoid crowds, or stayed home, BART spokesman Jim Allison said.

Transportation officials said it could take months to repair the damaged interchanges. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency to speed up cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

Despite the fire, the truck's driver walked away with only second-degree burns. James Mosqueda, 51, of Woodland, went to a gas station and called a taxi for a ride to a hospital, California Highway Patrol Officer Trent Cross said.

The investigation was still under way, but the California Highway Patrol believes Mosqueda may have lost control because he was speeding. Investigators were examining scrape marks and other evidence at the scene, CHP Officer Les Bishop said.

Investigators do not suspect drugs or alcohol were involved, Bishop said.

Mosqueda was being treated at a San Francisco hospital. "We are relieved that James is alive and in stable condition," his family said in a statement.

The accident occurred on the MacArthur Maze, a network of ramps and interchanges at the edge of downtown Oakland and about a half-mile from the Bay Bridge toll plaza.

Heat exceeded 2,750 degrees, softening and buckling steel beams and melting bolts, California Department of Transportation director Will Kempton said.

The cost of the repairs would likely run into the tens of millions of dollars, and the state was seeking federal disaster aid, Kempton said.

Associated Press writer Tom Verdin in San Diego contributed to this report.

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