A heavily-traveled bridge over the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County was closed yesterday because of damage sustained when full loaded 9,000 gallon gasoline tanker overturned and burst into flames. The truck's driver was killed in the 1:30 a.m. accident.
Massive traffic jams were reported in both morning and evening rush hours as officials assessed the damaged to the bridge that normally carries eastbound traffic on the Little River Turnpike (Rte. 236) over the Beltway at Annandale.
Sections of the bridge will have to be replaced, according to P.D. Gribok, assistant resident engineer for the National Highway Transportation Safety Board. "It won't support heavy traffic," he said.
"Steel beams were heated to the point of metal fatigue and a portion of the actual bridge deck will have to be replaced also. The heat was tremendous and a portion of the bridge's eastern pier, which connects with the abutment, is no longer safe," Gribok said.
The highway is a major route between Fairfax City and the Beltway. East of the Beltway it passes through Annadale, Lincolnia and Alexandria.
Eastbound traffic was detoured from Rte. 236 onto the Beltway until the afternoon rush hour when workers completed a temporary detour to divert eastbound traffic onto the 4-lane bridge that ordinarily carries only the highway's westbound traffic.
An estimate of the cost to repair the damage was not immediately available, nor would officials estimate how long the damaged bridge will be closed.
The Dayton Transport Lines tanker was driving down a ramp from eastbound Rte. 236 onto the Beltway about 1:30 a.m. when the accident occurred. Witnesses told state police the truck was traveling at high speed and rolled over.
"It just came off the ramp too fast and the gasoline inside [shifted, causing] the truck to turn over. It's a real sharp curve and he [the driver] just lost it," a state police spokesman said.
The truck's driver was said to be a Falls Church resident. His name was withheld pending notification of relatives.
The tank ruptured, spilling gasoline that was ignited by sparks. Flames spread for about 150 yards along the Beltway, including the stretch beneath the bridge.
Firefighters' efforts were complicated by burning gasoline that ran into drainage pipes under the Beltway.
"Flames were spouting close to 100 feet in the air when we arrived," said one Annandale firefighter. "Some of our people were almost overcome by the heat. . . . It was intense."
"It took us about 20 minutes to extinguish the main truck fire," said the firefighter. "But we were out there all night suppressing the rest. Another crew relieved us and they weren't done until 9 a.m.
"We could see the fire when we were a mile away on Rte. 236. We called in firefighting crews at Dulles Airport and they told us they could see the fire from the airport access road, and that was 11 miles away."
Special firefighting chemicals, including foam, were used to extinguish the blaze.
According to a Fairfax County police spokesman, the trcuk's driver had filled the tanker at a Fairfax City gasoline tank farm shortly before the accident and was "apparently running late."
A policeman at the scene said, "we have had some problems with truckers who refuse to downshift as they enter highways. They want to keep their speed up, but certain loads that they carry are more dangerous than other [and] can shift suddenly."
Police said it will be days before a satisfactory solution to traffic problems can be worked out.
Two ramps at the interchange are still closed: One that carried traffic from eastbound Rte. 236 to the Beltway's northbound lanes, and a loop that carried traffic from the southbound Beltway to eastbound 236.
Yesterday's crash was the third major accident in Fairfax County in three months involving fully loaded tank trucks, according to state highway officials.
On March 9, a 3,000 gallon oil truck jacknifed on Rte. 236 near Pickett Road in Fairfax City. The trailer broke loose and overturned three times but there were no injuries and the cargo didn't catch fire.
On April 27, another 9,000 gallon truck jacknifed while traveling north on Rte. 1 near Furnace Road. Lanes were blocked in both directions as firefighters poured foam on the gasoline truck. CAPTION: The driver of a tanker filled with 9,000 gallons of gasoline was killed when his truck overturned and burned at Little River Turnpike and the Beltway. By John Dwyler