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UDOT patches burned freeway, avoids days of closure

MIDVALE — It took a team effort, but southbound I-15 at the site of an explosive tanker fire that closed the freeway for hours Thursday night opened in time for Friday's evening commute.

Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason said a temporary asphalt patch was placed on the portion of the freeway near 7500 South that was "heavily damaged" by the fire. Fifteen panels, or about 37,500 square feet, of freeway in the two right lanes will eventually have to be replaced.

But with an incoming winter storm and the evening commute, Gleason said crews worked through the night to install a temporary fix. All lanes opened early Friday afternoon, he said.

"Originally we thought we were going to have to keep those lanes closed for several days," he said. "If we were looking at lane closures heading into the storm and the evening commute, it would be a terrible situation with traffic. So it was just an incredible team effort here by (the Utah Highway Patrol), Unified fire, our folks and everybody that was involved here, to come from where we thought we were going to be last night — where we'd have I-15 closed for possibly days, having several lanes closed for possibly days — to where we're able to open it up by noon today is nothing short of an amazing effort."

The damage occurred when a semi hauling two tankers carrying 9,000 gallons of gasoline and 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel caught fire around 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Todd Royce said other motorists on I-15 pulled up beside the semitrailer and flagged the driver, alerting him to the fire at the rear of the vehicle.

The driver was able to pull off the freeway to the right shoulder near 7500 South and exit the truck, Royce said.

According to Idaho-based Jackson Energy, which owns the truck, the driver was making his way from North Salt Lake to Sandy. The unidentified man tried to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher but could not, so he called 911, said Tony Stone, president of Jackson Energy.

Stone noted in a news release that a Dec. 17 maintenance report on the truck showed no defects. The company was working with UHP and believes the cause to be a mechanical issue with the brake or an axle seal.

"Due to the extreme heat of the fire," he said, "we may never know the cause."

Royce said the two biggest concerns for troopers Thursday night were being able to get emergency vehicles to the fire scene, and getting other vehicles out.

At one point, flames were shooting an estimated 100 feet into the air and could be seen from across the valley. Cars heading south between 7200 South and 7500 South became trapped at a standstill for hours. Northbound vehicles in that area were also stopped.

"This is a good example of why you should be prepared. You never know how long you'll be stuck on an interstate," Royce said.

He said there were no reports of anyone running out of gas on the freeway. But Royce encouraged all motorists to always be prepared with extra gasoline, food, water and clothing or blankets.

As emergency crews got a handle on the situation, Royce said vehicles trapped at the back of the standstill were slowly turned around and were directed off the freeway. Royce said it took time to get the other semitrailers on the road to turn their rigs around on the freeway and get off the freeway using on-ramps. He did not know what time it was when the last vehicle finally got off the freeway.

Stone's company was "extremely thankful that no one was injured," he said, and had a contractor working to clean the roadway with UDOT employees.

Firefighters from more than 15 agencies, including the Salt Lake City International Airport and the Utah National Guard, assisted in fighting the blaze. The National Guard used a specialized vehicle that carries up to 3,000 gallons of water and 420 gallons of foam typically used for large airplane fires, it said in a statement.

In a few weeks, when there is no storm in the forecast and there isn't expected to be a lot of traffic on the freeway, Gleason said UDOT crews will return on a weekend to permanently replace the damaged road panels — an effort he said will take 24 to 30 hours.

Gleason did not have an estimate on the projected recovery cost, but said the tanker's trucking company would be on the hook to cover it.

Contributing: Annie Knox