Repairs of Collapsed I-95 in Philadelphia to Take Months

Repairs of Collapsed I-95 in Philadelphia to Take Months
Firefighters respond to the scene of a collapse of Interstate 95, after a vehicle caught fire, in Philadelphia on June 11, 2023. (Courtesy of KYW)
Melanie Sun
6/12/2023
Updated:
6/13/2023
0:00

Traffic along a major East Coast artery is likely to face months of delays after an elevated section of the I-95 highway in Pennsylvania collapsed on Sunday morning, state officials said.

The approximately 70-foot-wide northbound portion of the I-95 in Philadelphia fell through after a tanker truck carrying flammable cargo caught fire on an exit ramp under an overpass, quickly melting the steel support structures of the highway.

Transportation officials said fire from the petroleum-based cargo, which may have contained hundreds of gallons of gasoline, took about an hour to get under control. Commuters have been warned of extensive delays and street closures in Philadelphia’s northeast corner.

The four northbound lanes of the I-95 have all collapsed, while southbound lanes were “compromised” from the heat of the fire, Derek Bowmer, battalion chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department, told reporters on Sunday afternoon.

Runoff from the fire or perhaps broken gas lines also caused explosions underground, he said.

The Coast Guard deployed a boom after a sheen was seen in the Delaware River near the collapse site.

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.

Firefighters stand near the collapsed part of I-95 in Philadelphia on June 11, 2023. (Philadelphia Fire Department via AP)
Firefighters stand near the collapsed part of I-95 in Philadelphia on June 11, 2023. (Philadelphia Fire Department via AP)

Repairing the highway will likely take “some number of months,” Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro warned. Commuters are likely to face travel disruptions through the summer.

The governor described the collapse as a “devastating site—one that our first responders, law enforcement, and others contained very, very quickly.”

“I found myself thanking the Lord that no motorists who were on I-95 were injured or died,” he said.

The fire started around 6:15 a.m. at the Cottman Avenue exit ramp, according to state Transportation Department spokesman Brad Rudolph. Rudolph said the department is now investigating the cause of the accident with state and federal partners.

There was no immediate time frame for reopening the highway, but Rudolph said that officials would consider “a fill-in situation or a temporary structure” to accelerate the effort.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the closure of I-95 will also have “significant impacts” on the wider region beyond the city.

“This is a major artery for people and goods, and the closure will have significant impacts on the city and region until reconstruction and recovery are complete,” he said on Twitter. “Our department will be there with support throughout the process of I-95 returning to normal.”

Fortunately, 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 incident occurred.

Mark Fusetti, a retired Philadelphia police sergeant, said he was driving south toward the city’s airport when he noticed thick, 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 the 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.”

While there have been no immediate reports of injuries, the commercial hauler remains trapped in the concrete rubble under the collapsed overpass and authorities are “still working to identify any individual or individuals who may have been caught in the fire,” Shapiro said.

Heavy construction equipment is required to remove the debris.

The destroyed portion of the highway is “likely the busiest interstate in the commonwealth,” Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Mike Carroll told reporters. It catered to around 160,000 vehicles each day.

Shapiro added that his office was working with federal partners on the matter and “looking at alternatives to connect the roadway beyond detours”—which currently adds 43 miles of travel, with traffic expected “to back up significantly on all the detour areas.”

Shapiro said he had spoken directly to Buttigieg, who has assured him 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.

His office plans to issue a disaster declaration on Monday to expedite federal funds for the rebuilding of the major artery.

Officials from the Federal Highway Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are expected in Philadelphia to support the rebuild and investigation efforts.
President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation.

The collapsed portion was part of a $212 million reconstruction project that wrapped up four years ago, Rudolph said.

It is unclear how commuters will cope with the collapse on Monday.

A temporary plan with detours and additional Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) bus services is in place for the next 48 hours, but it will likely need to be revised later, officials say. The department is also working to expand capacity on existing roads and additional cars have been added on the city’s Trenton, West Trenton, and Fox Chase Regional Rail Lines.

Currently, the suggested detours for motorists are Route 63 West (Woodhaven Road), U.S. 1 South, 76 East, 676 East, for southbound traffic; and I-676 West, I-76 West, U.S. 1 North to Route 63 East (Woodhaven Road) for northbound traffic.

“The challenges will be real when it comes to traffic movements in the city as a result of this incident,” Carroll said.

“We ask employers to be flexible with their workforces,” SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards said. “It’s going to take longer than normal to get to work tomorrow.”

The latest travel updates will be available at pa.gov/i95updates.

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. 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Melanie is a reporter and editor covering world news. She has a background in environmental research.
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