A tanker truck caught fire and spilled thousands of gallons of burning fuel into the street Wednesday night, sending people nearby running for safety.
The truck was on its way to an Arco station when the rear tank suddenly flipped on its side, sparking an inferno shortly before 6 p.m. on Palm Avenue near the intersection of Interstate 805 near the community of Otay Mesa south of San Diego.
Fluid leaking out of the second container of a dual tanker truck burned in the container, in a trail down nearby gutters and in the storm drains for quite some time until firefighters put all the flames except those inside the tanker.
“There were explosions all in the storm drains, and at different places where there were gutter openings and manhole," said Maurice Luque with San Diego Fire Rescue.
Manhole covers popped open as witnesses scattered to safety.
Luque said 8,800 gallons of fluid were being transported to an Arco station by the truck before the fire. Witnesses said the tanker overturned as the driver was making a turn at the intersection of Palm Avenue and Dennery Road.
"All of a sudden I heard this loud explosion and all this fire and smoke,"said Shapour Etmad. "It was really big and all the grass was burning."
Law enforcement officers evacuated thousands of people from a nearby shopping center and health care center while firefighters with a hook-and-ladder truck blasted water from quite a height and distance away.
Among the places told to evacuate, a Wal-Mart, The Home Depot and a movie theater.
“It was pretty chaotic,” said movie theater patron Marie Gonzalez.”I got scared the cops were running around flashing their lights telling everyone they needed to evacuate.”
“First I thought bomb threat, but we didn't know what to think, we just got out of there,” said Kevin Huffman.
Southbound lanes of the 805 had to be shut down along with Palm Avenue. Although no neighborhoods were evacuated, some residents who live to the east of the fire were blocked from getting home.
All Ivan Herrera could do was try to calm his wife on the phone. “She called me all nervous, all worried, said something blew up and hurry home,” Herrera said.
“Worried for the kids, I've got two little babies and I gotta hurry up and get there," he said.
The thick black smoke created by the explosion created another potential problem. The smoke is “very, very toxic”, according to Luque.
“We were very fortunate today that weather conditions were good today, the plume went up and didn't drift into residential or commerical areas," Luque said.
By 7 p.m. firefighters were pouring water on the last of the flames, having prevented the second container from ever igniting.
Investigators are still trying to determine if speed played a role.
The driver was taken from the scene for treatment, but no other injuries were reported.
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