A City of Commerce neighborhood is recovering this week from a real scare, but it has nothing to do with Halloween ghosts or haunted houses. Their scare came from the reality of living near one of the most heavily traveled freeways used by tanker trucks and trailers.
At about 9:30 in the morning on Oct. 27, a dual tanker truck crashed on the 710 Long Beach Freeway and erupted into flames just above their homes.
The tanker truck spilled the 8,000 gallons of crude oil it was carrying, according Los Angeles County Fire officials. One of the two tanks ignited in flames as it hung off the freeway overpass bridge located above Noakes Street, near South Sydney Drive in the Bristow Park neighborhood. The second tank fell and exploded on the rail tracks below. The highly flammable crude oil made its way into storm drains where it spread, provoking more flames along a stretch on Sydney Drive where parked vehicles caught on fire.
The thick black plumes of smoke and the nauseous smell of burning chemicals drove many residents out of their neighborhood, located adjacent to the Union Pacific rail yard. The fire was extinguished by 10:40 a.m., but the freeway remained closed until just before rush hour Monday so transportation and fire officials could inspect the integrity of the structure to ensure it was safe.
Four hazardous materials companies were called in to help LA County Fire’s Health Hazmat team remove the crude oil and clean up the mess the, fire and spill had caused. Crews scraped off the residue and soot, pressure washed and removed the tar-like substance being hauled up manholes, according to Don Ellis of LA County Fire Health Hazmat. The petroleum product in the large flood control channel below extends below ground from Atlantic Boulevard to just north of Slauson, he said.
Ellis expected the clean up to continue until about today, Oct. 31. The transporter was Pan Pacific Petroleum, he said, noting that the driver was badly burned in the accident.
Temporary concrete rails now block the gap in the bridge rail that was damaged in the fire.
Joseph Rios, 26, said he woke up to the sound of an explosion. He documented much of the fire on his cell phone. His aunt, Anita Lemus, came home puzzled about the smoke that appeared to be coming from the back of her home, but was really a block or two away. The 69-year-old Lemus described the pitch-black smoke as “spooky.”
Florentino Robles said neighbors were scrambling, some with garden hoses in hand, because they feared the raging fire would spread to a nearby business that specializes in the sale of firewood and charcoal, which would have been catastrophic.
“The truck was hanging from the bridge by its wheels, all that remained was its skeleton,” Robles told EGP in Spanish. “Nobody knew if anyone had been injured.”
Eighty-three year-old Ester Cuvarrubias lives on Sydney Drive in a home wedged between two businesses, one of them the firewood and charcoal company that stacks its product outside on wood pallets several feet high.
Cuvarrubias said the fire spread quickly on the hillside directly across the street from her home.
“I got so scared,” she said. Cuvarrubias says she feels safe now, but is worried there’s nothing to prevent it from happening again. “If it wasn’t for that truck [parked in front of my home] we wouldn’t have a house any more,” she said, describing how close the fire had come to her home.
The three semi-trucks, two work trucks and a work machine burned in the fire all belonged to building contractors Barraza & Son’s, located near Cuvarrubias’ home, according to people who were near the site when it caught fire.
Thirty-six year-old Esmeralda Jacobo and her family also live on Sydney Drive. They were among the residents who didn’t sit back wait for an evacuation order, but piled into their car and sought refuge elsewhere. According to Jacobo, her 5-year-old son was taken ill that day, was vomiting and had diarrhea. Her husband suspects the burning chemicals in the air made him sick.
According to Commerce Media Specialist Herlinda Chico, the fire department did not issue an evacuation order, but a fire company was assigned to go door to door to assess the situation. They found that many residents had already self-evacuated to a safer area.
According to Caltrans, the fire damage to the overpass included 50 feet of destroyed bridge railing, 60 feet of destroyed guardrail, the partial melting of an overhead sign.
Commerce Mayor Joe Aguilar, in an email to EGP on Tuesday, said, “Our primary concern is making sure our residents who were impacted are receiving the resources and information they need.”
He also thanked “the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles County Public Works Department and City staff whose quick response greatly minimized the impact on our community.”
Information from City News Service was used in this report.