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California transportation officials reopen lanes of busy interstate after fiery weekend pileup

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Traffic moved smoothly during rush hour Monday morning as transportation officials reopened Interstate 5 after a fatal, fiery tunnel crash closed the freeway over the weekend.

All main lanes on both sides of the freeway were open, while the truck tunnel where Friday's deadly crash occurred remained closed.

Congestion was lighter than usual for a Monday morning, with traffic zipping past the accident area despite heavy fog. Transit officials reduced speed limits in the area from 65 mph to 55 mph, but most vehicles were moving 70 mph or faster.

"Traffic is moving wonderfully," California Highway Patrol spokesman John Lutz said. "It's smooth and light."

Lutz said he had been expecting the morning commute to be somewhat more congested than usual, as the truck traffic that normally takes the tunnel would be using the main freeway lanes along with cars.

The reopening of one of the area's main arterial roads came quicker than expected. Officials over the weekend initially said the freeway may remain shut for days. Lutz credited state road crews for working nonstop to reopen the freeway.

Meanwhile, commuter train operator Metrolink started running run nonstop service with extra cars between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Clarita on Monday.

By 6 a.m., passengers were arriving at Santa Clarita's Newhall station.

"I thought it was an opportunity for me to try the train because even without accidents, the freeway is always packed," first-time Metrolink rider Jose Garcia, 48, said.

Henry Jekielek, 78, a security worker for the city of Santa Clarita who monitors passenger flow at the train station, said there appeared to be double the normal amount of passengers.

"Eventually this could lead to people getting used to the train and taking advantage of it," Jekielek said.

Investigators have determined that 31 vehicles — including big rigs and one passenger vehicle — were involved in the crash 30 miles north of Los Angeles. Authorities said it killed three people and injured at least 10 others.

The dead were burned beyond recognition and investigators were waiting for dental records to help identify them, Los Angeles County Coroner's Lt. Cheryl MacWillie said.

Two of the victims, believed to be a 38-year-old man and a 6-year-old boy, were riding together in a big rig, MacWillie said. Officials had previously said the child in the truck was an infant.

Investigators believe the third victim is a man, MacWillie said.

Several trucks in the crash burst into flames and the fire spread from vehicle to vehicle. Flames shot nearly 100 feet in the air outside the tunnel and reached temperatures as high as 1,400 degrees.

The tunnel is a truck bypass that runs beneath eight lanes of I-5, the main West Coast interstate, linking Mexico and Canada. It is also a major route from Los Angeles to the city's northern suburbs.

Truckers use the road to haul produce from the Central Valley into Southern California and to move goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach into the state's north.

State transit officials said they installed two of five supports to hold up the tunnel. Contractors were working to put in the remaining three.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County, which will allow the state to deploy emergency workers and equipment and give aid to local government.

Burn marks scarred the road leading into the 550-foot tunnel. Large flatbed trucks were parked by the highway, apparently waiting to be loaded with remaining debris.

The 1970s-built tunnel, with its long curve and darkness, has long been regarded by truckers as one of the most dangerous areas of the freeway. State transit authorities said the tunnel was safe as long as drivers were careful.

Associated Press writers Steve Loeper in Santa Clarita and Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.