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Crews Reopen Fire-Closed I-95 in Six Days

Mon April 05, 2004 - Northeast Edition
James Van Horn



Six days after an intense fire shut down all lanes of a heavily traveled section of Connecticut Interstate 95, the road reopened in both directions, beating original estimates by more than a week.

The fire Thursday night, March 25, occurred on the Howard Avenue overpass of I-95 in Bridgeport, damaged the steel bridge supports on both northbound and southbound sides, forcing the closing of a mile-long section and bringing traffic, normally 120,000 vehicles a day, to a halt.

The fire resulted from a crash involving an automobile and a tanker truck loaded with 12,000 gal. of home heating oil. Connecticut State Police said the car apparently rear-ended the tanker truck and forced it into a concrete barrier on the southbound side of the interstate. According to observers, the fire erupted after oil spilled onto the pavement and passing cars created an aerosol mist that caught fire. Witnesses said they heard explosions and saw a gigantic fireball shoot into the sky. There were no serious injuries.

The fire was so hot it buckled the steel support beams on both sides of the highway, authorities said. The overpass, which was new, sagged several feet. “Once it sagged, it made a pool of burning fuel oil,” said Wallace Thomas, Bridgeport’s deputy fire chief. The fire was contained after nearly three hours.

The impact, as could be expected, was horrendous. Interstate 95 is the main artery between New York and Boston, and shutting it down immediately diverted traffic onto Bridgeport’s city streets, jamming them past capacity. The nearest alternate through route, the Merritt Parkway, which parallels I-95, prohibits commercial trucks because several bridges on the historic parkway are too low for some trucks. The parkway itself has only two lanes in each direction.

The second alternate, Interstate 84 in west-central Connecticut, also has only two lanes in each direction between Danbury and Hartford and, because it is actually operating beyond capacity at times, is undergoing a major reconstruction in the Waterbury-Cheshire stretch.

That left the New York Thruway-Massachusetts Turnpike route as the most viable option for truck traffic bound for Boston and points north and east.

Naturally, the alternative routes like the Merritt were bumper-to-bumper throughout the weekend. Motorists and Bridgeport residents suffered through miles of traffic jams on local streets. Congestion caused by highway detours on local streets was serious enough for Bridgeport Mayor John M. Fabrizi to call for a 90-minute delay in school openings.

However, the northbound lanes reopened for traffic Sunday afternoon, March 28. By Monday afternoon, March 29, southbound traffic was moving smoothly through Bridgeport, funneled along the detour by numerous police officers and barricades.

And early Wednesday morning, March 31, the three southbound lanes reopened, although with reduced speed limits.

Ironically, partly because of the high traffic volume, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) is upgrading and rebuilding a 10-mi. long stretch of I-95 in Bridgeport and Fairfield, CT, at a cost of more than $500 million, by at least five different contractors or joint ventures. The area where the accident occurred is in one of these projects, a $113-million ConnDOT contract with a joint venture of M. DeMatteo Construction Co., Braintree, MA, and Brunalli Construction Co., Southington, CT. The Howard Avenue overpass bridges had been reconstructed by DeMatteo and Brunalli. (Their contract has been slated for completion next year, but that could now change.)

Fortunately, because of the ongoing construction, there were plenty of workers and equipment immediately available, mostly from the joint venture. Working around the clock, engineers from ConnDOT and crews from the contractors demolished the old southbound bridge, which at one point dipped to 3 ft. above Howard Avenue because of the intense heat of Thursday’s blaze. Then, officials decided to reopen the northbound lanes Sunday afternoon.

ConnDOT officials said tests performed over the weekend on samples of the northbound bridge revealed that it could be secured with reinforcing piers below the overpass. Art Gruhn, ConnDOT’s chief engineer, said the piers, essentially small scaffolds, will hold the 75-ft. long, 30-in. wide girders that keep the bridge standing.

“I stood under that bridge with four dump trucks on it. It is structurally sound,” Gruhn said. “Short-time use is fine,” Gruhn said of the repaired structure. But, “It would not last 40 to 30 years that it normally would.”

On the southbound side, engineers had at one time proposed filling in Howard Avenue below with dirt, then building the roadway on top of it. However, they opted to install a 35-ft. long temporary, three-lane bridge from Acrow Corp., Carlstadt, NJ.

Acrow also played a major role in very similar disaster three years ago on Interstate 80 West in Dover, NJ, where the steel girder bridge over a brook buckled from intense heat from a fire that resulted when a tanker truck laden with gasoline erupted after a multi-truck accident. The Acrow bridge, along with 8,000 tons of asphalt ramping, provided a temporary roadway for westbound I-80 until a permanent steel and precast concrete bridge was installed several months later. (In this case, only the westbound lanes were affected by the fire.)

Construction workers began laying the foundation for the steel bridge late Saturday and then poured concrete footings for the “temporary” bridge, which might be needed for as long as two years.

Work on a permanent replacement for the damaged span is expected to take at least 12 to18 months.

On Sunday, workers assembled the Acrow bridge near the gaping hole over Howard Avenue. Then on Monday two 50-ton capacity Terex rough terrain hydraulic cranes installed the Acrow bridge. The crane operators began putting the bridge frame in place at 5 p.m. and had completed the work by 7 p.m.

The next step was to lay down steel panels and pave hotmix over them. This was completed in time for reopening the southbound lanes to traffic Wednesday morning.

Essentially, the southbound lanes had been shut down only five days. By comparison, Interstate 80 in New Jersey reopened after five days, but then shut down for another two days due to problems with the new asphalt pavement.

Crews worked continuously so that the road could be reopened as soon as possible, said John Wiltse, a spokesman for Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland. “It’s a 24-hour operation. They are not going to stop until they get it into place.”

Installation of the replacement bridge was facilitated by $2 million more in emergency aid announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The grant, in addition to $11.2 million already allocated, also will pay for police overtime for traffic control. Construction costs were averaging $250,000 a day.

Work proceeded well ahead of the original forecast that the road might be closed for up to two weeks. “Everybody understands the situation and is pulling out all the stops,” said Art Gruhn, chief engineer for the state Department of Transportation.

He said as many as 70 construction workers, 20 engineers, 20 ConnDOT staff and various contractors were on-site at all times. Gruhn attributed the quick work to “a lot of good work, and a lot of hard work.”

The job also was easier because the highway was completely shut down, so workers could cover the entire road surface. “Take any traffic off a road you can do a lot of things differently, you can do it in half the time,” Gruhn said.

Rowland attributed the reopening to many factors including federal aid and the quick pace of repair construction, including the hard work and coordination of numerous government agencies and contractors working on the emergency project.

“We have a great team that has been able to do a lot of work,” the governor said. “Who would have known that there was a temporary bridge that we could get here for the southbound lanes?”

After all lanes of I-95 were reopened, there still remained cleanup work to do, not to mention that engineers have to address the long-term fix for the Howard Avenue overpass. And, while the heroic efforts by ConnDOT and the contractors uncorked a major bottleneck in almost record time, the accident underscored what is potentially a major, long-term problem.

Probably because it is so heavily traveled, Interstate 95 in Connecticut has been the scene of several serious accidents that have shut down the roadway in recent years. In fact, the same Sunday that I-95 northbound reopened for traffic in Bridgeport, it was shut down in Norwalk due to an accident that killed three people.

Currently I-95 is the beneficiary of numerous ConnDOT construction projects. In addition to the massive Bridgeport Corridor job, where the accident happened, there is median reconstruction work in the Norwalk-Darien stretch, bridge reconstruction in Milford, and extensive work on a long stretch of the interstate on both sides of and over the New Haven harbor.

Yet some highway authorities see Southern Connecticut being at sort of an impasse here, because traffic volume is expected to get only heavier in the future. And the I-95 corridor does have a viable mass transit rail system running parallel to it most of its length. Highway engineers further point out that I-95, which not only provides local but also through transport, cannot be expanded any more without a massive dislocation — there is simply no more room.

For example, after the Bridgeport Corridor project is completed there will still be basically three through lanes in each direction. (Some traffic planners have even proposed double-decking the interstate — an alternative hardly ever used in this country.) The Merritt Parkway has room for a third lane, but it is so historically protected that any expansion could be blocked in the courts for years.

But for now, it’s back to normal for motorists traveling, or wanting to travel, I-95 in Connecticut.