PHILADELPHIA -- An elevated section of Interstate 95 collapsed early Sunday in Philadelphia after a tanker truck carrying flammable cargo caught fire.
Officials say it could take several months to rebuild.
The fire broke out around 6 a.m. underneath I-95 near the Cottman Avenue exit in the Tacony section of the city. Fire officials said the flames were under control by Sunday evening.
Gov. Josh Shapiro, who said Sunday evening he planned to issue a disaster declaration Monday to speed federal funds, said at least one vehicle was still trapped beneath the collapsed roadway.
"We're still working to identify any individual or individuals who may have been caught in the fire and the collapse," he said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Sources tell Action News the tanker truck was carrying 8,500 gallons of 87-octane fuel.
"Preliminary reports indicate that a commercial truck carrying a petroleum based product was the source of the fire," Shapiro said. "We're still working to identify any individual or individuals who may have been caught in the fire and the collapse."
It's not yet known if the driver was still in the truck when the fire began.
Police sources tell Action News that the truck driver is unaccounted for on Sunday night.
They say the man is an experienced driver, and that something likely happened as he was coming off the ramp of the highway.
There is no word yet on the driver's identity.
Shapiro stated in a press conference that the northbound lanes have completely collapsed, and the southbound lanes are unstable.
"As has been reported, the northbound side of I-95 has completely collapsed and the southbound side is not structurally sound to carry any traffic over it," said Shapiro.
All lanes of the highway are shut down between the exits for Woodhaven Road in Northeast Philadelphia and Aramingo Avenue in the Port Richmond section.
Officials say an average of 160,000 vehicles drive each day on the section of collapsed highway.
The northbound section sees an average of more than 76,000 vehicles, while the southbound section sees an average of more than 83,000 vehicles per day.
According to Shapiro, repairs could take some time.
"We expect that to take some number of months. We expect it to take that time," said Shapiro. "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."
Shapiro said he had spoken directly to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and had been assured that there would be "absolutely no delay" in getting federal funds quickly to rebuild what he called a "critical roadway" as safely and efficiently as possible.
'IT SMELLS LIKE BURNING PLASTIC'
Explosions could be heard in the area as the fumes seeped into manholes.
"Just really loud pops and it's, like, a little louder than gunshots," said Tacony resident Brian Kelly. "Almost like M80s. Little fireworks."
Everyone is being asked to avoid the scene.
"It smells like burning plastic mixed with, like, if you're standing right behind a car and it's blowing fumes in your face," said Tacony resident Sierra Jones.
Officials say the extent of the damage means this is a situation that will impact the region for a long time to come.
"Today's going to be a long day. Obviously, with 95 northbound gone and southbound questionable, it's going to be even longer," Dominick Mireles, the director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management.
Thousands of tons of steel and concrete were piled atop the site of the fire, he said, and heavy construction equipment would be required to start to remove the debris.
After a sheen was reported in the Delaware River near the collapse site, the Coast Guard deployed a boom to contain the material. Ensign Josh Ledoux said the tanker had a capacity of 8,500 gallons, but the contents did not appear to be spreading into the environment.
"As far as waterways go, it's being contained, and it seems like things are under control," he said.
Officials with the U.S. Coast Guard later confirmed there was no sheening on the Delaware River, which signals no gasoline reached the river from the truck.
There was a little sheening in a cove adjacent to the river, but none in the river itself, officials say.
The water is safe for city residents to use and consume.
'THE ROAD'S FALLING'
Video from people who were driving on I-95 before the collapse are shocking. One woman took video from her Lyft ride at 6:21 a.m. The road collapsed about one minute later.
Other videos show the road starting to buckle.
One of those videos was taken by Lisa Taormino of Langhorne, Pa. She said she was on her way to work and, by the time she realized the smoke and flames were on the highway, it was too late.
She was surrounded and her car dipped down into the road.
"You can see flames coming up on the right hand side through all this black smoke... and the left hand side was worse," she said. "But the car in front of me really dipped down far."
Taormino can be heard saying, "Oh my God, the road's falling," while traveling past the scene.
Mark Fusetti, a retired Philadelphia police sergeant, said he was driving south toward the city's airport when he noticed thick plumes of black smoke rising over the highway.
As he passed the fire, the road beneath began to "dip," creating a noticeable depression that was visible in video he took of the scene, he said.
He saw traffic in his rearview mirror come to a halt. Soon after, the northbound lanes of the highway crumbled.
"It was crazy timing," Fusetti said. "For it to buckle and collapse that quickly, it's pretty remarkable."
RESPONSE TO THE COLLAPSE
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a Twitter post that President Joe Biden was briefed on the collapse and that White House officials were in contact with Shapiro and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's offices to offer assistance. Buttigieg, in a social media post, called it "a major artery for people and goods" and said the closure would have "significant impacts on the city and region until reconstruction and recovery are complete."
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team to investigate the fire and collapse.
Most drivers traveling the I-95 corridor between Delaware and New York City use the New Jersey Turnpike rather than the segment of interstate where the collapse occurred. Until 2018, drivers did not have a direct highway connection between I-95 in Pennsylvania and I-95 in New Jersey. They had to use a few miles of surface roads, with traffic lights, to get from one to the other.
Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt will travel to Philadelphia on Monday to offer federal support and assistance following the partial collapse.
"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," a spokesperson said in a statement.
DETOURS AROUND I-95 COLLAPSE IN PHILADELPHIA
Pennsylvania State Police, Philadelphia police, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation have established the following detour around the I-95 collapse:
- Route 63 West (Woodhaven Road), U.S. 1 South, 76 East, 676 East
- I-676 West, I-76 West, U.S. 1 North to Route 63 East (Woodhaven Road)
State officials launched a website to provide updates on the highway's reconstruction as well as detours.
SEPTA officials stated on Sunday that extra capacity will be added to its services following the highway's collapse.
"We're adding capacity on the Trenton, West Trenton and Fox Chase lines. That means additional cars on scheduled trains. We're going to bus the Cynwyd Lines so that we can repurpose equipment and personnel and get them over to the Trenton Line," said Leslie S. Richards, SEPTA CEO and general manager.
SEPTA will run three extra Trenton Line trains during the morning and evening rush on Monday, officials say.
In the morning, those trains will run 6:40 a.m. and 8:03 a.m. from Trenton, along with one at 8:25 a.m. from Holmesburg Juncton.
In the evening, trains will run at 3:05 p.m. from Suburban Station to Holmesburg Junction, along with trains at 4:30 p.m. and 5:20 p.m. to Trenton.
"Thanks to our partners at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, there will be free parking at their three park-and-ride lots at Fern Rock, at Fox Chase and at Torresdale," added Richards. "There's also free parking and all SEPTA own Regional Rail lots as well as at the Frankford Transportation Center for access to the Market-Frankford Line."
For more information on the expanded SEPTA services, click here.
TRASH & RECYCLING COLLECTIONS
City officials are asking residents to continue setting their trash and recycling collections out on their regular trash day and at their regular pickup site.
Some residents in northeast sections of Philadelphia may see delays in collections, officials warned.
The Streets Department says it is assessing the impact of the collapse to sanitation trucks traveling in the area. Some trucks may be diverted to alternative travel routes.
Officials say to check the department's Twitter page for updates and more information.
SIMILARITIES TO 1996 FIRE ON I-95 IN PHILADELPHIA
The fire was strikingly similar to another blaze in Philadelphia in March 1996, when an illegal tire dump under I-95 caught fire, melting guard rails and buckling the pavement.
The highway was closed for several weeks, and partial closures lasted for six months.
Seven teenagers were charged with arson and the dump's owner was sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison and ordered to pay $3 million of the $6.5 million repair costs, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
More recently in Atlanta, a massive fire collapsed an elevated portion of Interstate 85, shutting down the heavily traveled route through the heart of the city in March 2017. A homeless man was accused of starting the blaze, but federal investigators said in a report that the state transportation department's practice of storing combustible construction materials under the highway increased the risk of fire.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.