Highway officials said two closed lanes on the southbound side of Interstate 95 have reopened and holiday traffic is moving through the area, several hours after a spectacular tanker truck explosion burned off a stretch of pavement.
A gasoline tanker caught fire and exploded on I-95 near the Beltway in Prince George's County before dawn, setting off a massive fire, forcing hundreds of commuters and Thanksgiving travelers to evacuate their cars and snarling traffic on one of the biggest travel days of the year.
The burned road prevented drivers from exiting I-95 to the western side of the Beltway.
The tanker, carrying 8,600 gallons of gasoline, was traveling southbound on I-95 near Maryland's Route 212 when a fire broke out in the truck. No other vehicles were involved and no one was injured.
Highway workers replaced the top inch or so of a 100 to 150 foot stretch of the two right lanes of the highway that were charred by the fire and unable to support traffic. "You can literally kick the top surface off with your foot," said Maryland State Highway spokesman Dave Buck, who was also on the scene.
To repair one of the busiest roads in the country, highway workers first swept up all the debris, including parts of the burned truck. By 11 a.m. they began milling the top 1.5 to 2 inches of the stretch, a process that amounts to scraping away the top of the road surface.
By 1 p.m. all the asphalt had been laid and flattened and workers were double-checking to make sure that the road had been paved properly. A paint truck was idling nearby, ready to paint the center lines and lane dividers.
As soon as the milling was completed, the asphalt hit the ground at about 280 or 290 degrees and fresh pavement would appeared on the road.
The quick turnaround is due partly to cold temperatures that expedite the cooling of the asphalt.
In fact, the temperatures were rather serendipitous because they rose above 45 degrees, warm enough that the asphalt will stick and will not need to be replaced at a later date. If the outside air temperature was below 45 degrees, the asphalt would not stick as well and would have to be replaced.
Boyor Chew, the driver of the truck that caught on fire told WRC-Channel 4 that he felt "lucky to be alive."
"My wheel was on fire," said Chew, "so I jumped out. Next thing you know, she was up in flames."
Chew said he had just loaded up with fuel in Baltimore and was carrying 8,600 gallons of regular and premium gasoline. "I knew one thing, to get out of there," said Chew. "I thought it was going to explode on me."
Capt. Mark Brady of the Prince George's County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department said the cause of the tanker fire, whose tall flames spread onto the median and into nearby woods before being contained by 100 firefighters, was still unknown. He said typically such fires are caused by mechanical problems but that the cause of this fire may never be known.
Authorities let the gasoline burn until the fire died down after about two hours.
"We'd rather have the product burn off, disperse into the atmosphere and go in and mop up the small amount that's left over at the end," said Brady, explaining why fire officials did not try to extinguish the burning gas.
Brady said hundreds of drivers evacuated their cars after the explosion but there were no reports of injuries.
Lon Anderson, director of public and government affairs for the AAA's mid-Atlantic region, said the tanker fire couldn't have happened on a worse day.
"We don't have enough road capacity in the Washington area on a normal day for our commuters," said Anderson. "And today is not a normal day. It's the biggest single travel day of the year, or maybe the second biggest."
Anderson said AAA estimates that some 683,000 Washington area residents were taking trips of 50 miles or more over the Thanksgiving holiday. He said the crash also affected Thanksgiving motorists traveling through the Washington area to other destinations along the I-95 corridor.
Anton Davila and Christina Colby, both 26, were just two holiday travelers whose plans were upended by the fire.
Davila and Colby left New Britain, Conn., at 1 a.m. to get a jump-start on their drive to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with Colby's brother.
"It's been a nightmare," said Davila, parked in the corner of an Exxon gas station near where the truck caught fire. "First, we hit the traffic on I-95. Then the Range Rover broke down." The couple's SUV over-heated while they were stalled in the traffic caused by the fire.
Staff Writers Hamil R. Harris, Sudarsan Raghavan and William Wan contributed to this report.