Gasoline spill on Highway 101 ignites traffic chaos

A gas spill and fears of a massive explosion Tuesday shut down U.S. Highway 101 in Redwood City through early this morning, creating a commuter nightmare for drivers after a big-rig truck flipped and spilled more than 1,000 gallons of fuel.

Southbound traffic on the freeway was allowed to flow again at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, but northbound lanes need to be repaved, the California Highway Patrol said. The work could keep it closed through 6 this morning.

The traffic artery — which carries an estimated 200,000 cars per weekday in San Mateo County — was transformed into a parking lot after officials closed off both northbound and southbound lanes, forcing drivers to find alternative routes. Authorities worked feverishly to mop up the 1,600 gallons of fuel that flowed from the tanker, some of which leaked into a center-divide drainage pipe that runs underneath the highway near the Whipple Avenue exit.

“With gasoline, there’s the danger of vapors, and anything could ignite it,” said Lauren Wonder, head of communications for the California Department of Transportation.

The accident closed the northbound lanes from Woodside Road to Whipple Avenue shortly after 2 p.m. Worries about the possibility of a fire from gas trapped under the highway forced officials to close off southbound lanes from Highway 92 to Woodside Road at 4 p.m.

The tanker, carrying two trailers with 5,200 gallons of gasoline, was traveling north when it was clipped by a white minivan. The collision caused the rear trailer to tip over and rupture, California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Grace Castillo said.

Tuesday’s accident was similar to another crash on the highway near the Woodside Road exit in May. In last year’s incident, a big rig swerved out of control and burst into flames on southbound Highway 101. Debris from the crash damaged three other cars and killed a driver.

The owner of the truck in Tuesday’s accident, KAG West of West Sacramento, was involved in a mishap last year while hauling 8,600 gallons of gas through Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The company was reportedly cited 17 times in California between January and May 2007.

San Mateo County’s hazmat teams were on scene throughout the afternoon to contain the tanker’s remaining fuel by pumping foam onto the leaked fuel, Wonder said. Caltrans’ hazmat teams were expected to be brought in after the trailer was emptied to vacuum fuel out of the highway drainage system, which connects to the Bay.

“No gasoline got into the water,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Danielle Couture said.

Neither of the drivers involved in the crash had been arrested, Castillo said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

Examiner Staff Writer Katie Worth contributed to this report.

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