A tanker truck fire, unidentified body and disaster declared: What we know about Philadelphia’s I-95 collapse

The governor signed a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency on Monday following the collapse

Monday 12 June 2023 21:16 BST
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I-95-Collapse
I-95-Collapse (© Copyright 2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer)

A major travel and shipping corridor in the northeastern US will face major disruptions after a vehicle fire caused parts of I-95 in Philadelphia to crumble.

Government officials in Pennsylvania and the US Department of Transportation are scrambling to respond to the catastrophic collapse of an overpass.

The highway is a major thoroughfare for both individual travel and shipping in the region, and may cause significant disruption to both due to the severity of the collapse.

At noon on Monday, Governor Josh Shapiro signed a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency in response to the collapse.

Here's everything we know about the I-95 highway overpass collapse.

Tanker truck fire spews black smoke into the sky

Emergency dispatchers received calls of a massive vehicle firing burning beneath a portion of I-95 where it overpasses a ramp to Cottman Avenue around 6.20am on Sunday.

Drivers reported seeing huge black plumes of smoke rising from beneath the highway as they rode past.

Section of Philadelphia highway collapses after vehicle was on fire

First responders found the fire originated from a truck hauling 8,500 gallons of 87-octane fuel to a local Wawa gas station. It is still unclear how the fire started.

The intense heat mixed with the immense weight of the concrete of the highway apparently weakened the structural integrity of the overpass, causing a portion to collapse down onto the ramp — and the truck — below.

Mark Fusetti was driving south on I-95 on the way to pick up his son from the airport when he saw the smoke rising from below the highways. He said he initially thought the smoke was cause by a brushfire, according to CNN.

I-95-Collapse
I-95-Collapse

He began filming and recorded himself and other drivers going over a "dip" in the highway — he compared it to the feeling of driving over a curb — and only later realised what he felt was the concrete collapsing beneath him.

“I realised what happened when I looked in my rearview mirror. I see 95 – all of the cars stopping and then I learned, shortly after that the road had just collapsed and what was really going on,” Mr Fusetti told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Sunday.

Sierra Jones, a resident of the Tacony neighborhood on Philadelphia, said the fire smelled "like burning plastic mixed with, like, if you're standing right behind a car and it's blowing fumes in your face," according to ABC6.

All lanes of the highway were shut down due to the fire and collapse.

Rescue crews rush to find survivors in rubble

First responders were tasked with trying to stop the fire while also searching for possible victims on and beneath the overpass.

Because the highway collapsed onto the burning truck — leaving thousands of tons of steel and concrete in its wake —their first major hurdle was actually reaching the seat of the fire in order to extinguish the flames.

After hours of work and searching the debris, first responders found no evidence that any motorists were killed during the collapse. Initially it was unclear what happened to the truck driver, but ABC6 reported on Monday that crews had located human remains beneath the rubble they believe may be the driver.

Officials have not positively identified the human remains.

However, the truck driver's family identified him as Nathaniel Moody. He has not been seen since the accident.

Workers inspect and clear debris from a section of the bridge that collapsed on Interstate 95 after an oil tanker explosion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Workers inspect and clear debris from a section of the bridge that collapsed on Interstate 95 after an oil tanker explosion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Getty)

Traffic along the affected sections of I-95 — which services more than 160,000 motorists daily — was re-routed to detours as crews began the process of clearing the rubble and investigating the site.

The city's public transportation service, SEPTA, was immediately cleared to increase its capacity to help service commuters in the city whose daily drives will be impacted by the route's closure.

“In order to accommodate travel through the city and region following the I-95 collapse, SEPTA will provide added capacity and Service. on the Trenton, West Trenton and Fox Chase Lines,” the agency said in a statement.

The governor conducted a fly-over of the site, describing it as "remarkable devastation" and noting that it was incredible that more people did not die.

“I found myself thanking the Lord that no motorists who were on I-95 were injured or died,” he said. That statement was made prior to the discovery of the human remains that may belong to the driver of the truck that burned.

The Coast Guard was also deployed to contain a sheen that was reported in the Delaware River following the fire.

Coast Guard Ensign Josh Ledoux said it did not appear that any of the material was spreading further into the environment, and later determined the sheen was only spotted in a cove near the river, but not in the river.

"As far as waterways go, it's being contained, and it seems like things are under control," Mr Ledoux told ABC6.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Sunday that Joe Biden had been briefed on the collapse and had been in contact with both the governor's and mayor's offices.

The National Transportation Safety Board has sent a team to investigate the incident.

This screen grab from video provided by WPVI-TV/6ABC shows the collapsed section of I-95 with fire trucks on the scene in Philadelphia, Sunday, June 11, 2023. (WPVI-TV/6ABC via AP)
This screen grab from video provided by WPVI-TV/6ABC shows the collapsed section of I-95 with fire trucks on the scene in Philadelphia, Sunday, June 11, 2023. (WPVI-TV/6ABC via AP) (WPVI-TV/6ABC)

Fears highway rebuild could take months

Due to the extent of the damage, the governor said rebuilding the highway would likely take months.

"We expect that to take some number of months. We expect it to take that time," Mr Shapiro said. "And we will have that specific timeline set forth once the engineers and PennDOT have completed their review to expedite this process and to cut through the red tape."

Mr Shapiro said he had spoken with DOT head Pete Buttigieg and was assured that there would be "absolutely no delay" in securing federal funds to begin rebuilding the "critical roadway" as safely and as efficiently as possible.

Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt traveled to the region Monday to survey the damage and offer support in the clean-up and rebuild effort.

"The I-95 corridor is a vital connection for people and goods traveling along the East Coast, and FHWA has offered support and assistance to state and local officials to help them safely reopen this section of I-95 as quickly as possible," an agency spokesperson said in a statement.

Tumar Alexander, the managing director for the City of Philadelphia, said the collapse will have a "significant impact to this community for a while," according to CNN, noting that the corridor "will be impacted for a long time."

The corridor services numerous industrial businesses, port facilities, and manufacturing plants in the surrounding area.

“Those industries are what’s going to feel the brunt of the disruption probably due to surface street delays and potentially diversions for shipments coming in and out,” Kristen Scudder, the city's planning commission freight program manager told the network.

She warned that diversions could also cause a ripple effect in the area's supply chain, potentially spiking shipping and inventory storage costs. Ms Scudder said that while there would likely be some initial congestion among regular city traffic, she anticipates drivers will become familiar with new routes and that corridor clogging should subside over time.

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