Oakland, CA Collision Inside Tunnel, Apr 1982


Oakland, Calif. -- A tanker truck loaded with gasoline crashed into a bus in a highway tunnel and exploded Wednesday, creating a 1,000-degree inferno that melted vehicles in seconds and incinerated their occupants.
Seven people are known dead. All were burned nearly to ashes.
"It was a raging inferno in here," said California Highway Patrol officer JIM MATTOS, who notes the number of victims could go up.
The initial blast was followed by about 20 smaller explosions and a 2 1/2 hour fire that destroyed much of the tunnel.
IAN ALLIK, 18, was about to drive into the curving, 18-year-old tunnel when the explosions began. "They were incredibly loud," said the Walnut Creek resident. "There was one loud explosion followed by at least 20 other smaller ones."
Officials said some of the 8,800 gallons of gasoline in the tanker leaked into a nearby reservoir and could case an "environmental tragedy."
Three people who ran from the tunnel, choking with smoke, were hospitalized.
MATTOS said the Oakland city bus, carrying no passengers, swerved to avoid a stalled car and collided with the tanker truck. The tanker's trailer overturned in the narrow roadway just after midnight.
Spilling gasoline ignited and flashed into a fireball that in seconds roared through about a third of the half-mile long tunnel, melting brass fittings, popping tiles from the walls, and turning a 2-inch-thick concrete lining to sooty powder.
The tanker, a semi-truck and trailer loaded with beer, two pickup trucks and three autos melted into pools of metal in fire heat estimated at 1,000 degrees or more.
Where corpses were removed, black splotches in human form lay in the pulverized dust and debris.
Seconds before the explosion, the driver of the tanker, MARVIN LEE METZGER, 44, of Sacramento, Calif., dashed from his cab and out of the tunnel and survived uninjured.
One of the bodies recovered in the tunnel was believed to be that of the bus driver who was thrown from the vehicle which then careened along the walls and impaled itself on a freeway stanchion just outside the tunnel entrance.
A highway patrolman who was one of the first to go in the tunnel afterward said it "looked like a bomb had gone off. It was just unbelievable." He said the victims were "fried."
The firestorm left foot-deep piles of tiles in the charred guts of the tunnel, said fire Capt. JOHN SPEAKMAN. Sprinklers that are triggered by 1,000-degree heat went off throughout the tube.
SPEAKMAN said normally a 5 mph breeze blows west-to-east against traffic in the tunnel. He said the force of the explosion turned the tube into a kind of horizontal chimney that carried flames and smoke at at estimated 100 mph.
It took firemen several hours to put out the blaze.
Midway in the half-mile-long, burned-out tunnel they found the remains of the tanker truck -- a puddle of tangled, melted metal. Axles, the radiator, and ironically, a yellow fire extinguisher, stood upright in the debris.
The sides and roof were melted away from the beer truck, but its load of beer remained stacked, the cans hissing and steaming.
The explosion occurred at 12:16 a.m. at a curving section of the triple-barreled tunnel used by thousands of suburban residents to commute to their jobs in the San Francisco Bay area.
Motorist JOSE HALL, who was approaching the west entrance of the tunnel, said he saw a flash.
"About 15 seconds later, we saw a bunch of black smoke," HALL said.
Nearer to the tunnel entrance, DENNIS KNUDSON, 25, said he saw cars backing out.
"They weren't just backing out, they were spinning their wheels," KNUDSON said. Then he saw three men running out, ahead of a cloud of thick black smoke.
Authorities said all of the dead were incinerated, making identification difficult.
From accounts by witnesses, the Highway Patrol said the transit bus driver, JOHN DYKES, 54, lost control when he swerved to avoid hitting a car ahead of him in the tunnel.
The bus bounced off the wall of the tunnel and into the tanker truck, which overturned, spilling its load of volatile fuel. DYKES was apparently thrown from his bus, which had no passengers. He was believed dead in the inferno.
Other motorists saw the driverless bus careening out the end of the smoking tunnel. It slammed head on into the freeway stanchion just outside the tunnel exit.
"I could hear the tanker-truck exploding inside the tunnel," said DAVID WILLIAMS, who was on the highway near the tunnel.
The Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., sent a team of seven experts to investigate the accident because flammable material was involved.
State Fish and Game officials are investigating what impact the gas spill may have on Lake Temescal, a reservoir that overflows into San Francisco Bay.
The tube in which the accident occurred was closed indefinitely.

The Post-Standard Syracuse New York 1982-04-08

Killed In The Accident, Explosion and Fire: