June 11, 2023
A truck fire beneath Interstate 95 northbound caused a portion of the highway to collapse in Northeast Philadelphia on Sunday morning, prompting detours that will pose major challenges ahead for transportation in the region.
The rebuild of the destroyed highway in Tacony is expected to take months, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said Sunday afternoon.
"We will have that specific timeline set forth once the engineers and PennDOT have completed their review," said Shapiro, who has received assurance of federal action from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. The state will issue a disaster declaration Monday to immediately make federal funds available to begin the reconstruction and address the resulting impacts on the region.
"All of our federal partners have pledged complete and total support and assistance as we create alternative routes, and as we rebuild I-95," Shapiro said.
The fire started around 6:20 a.m. Sunday between Exit 32 for Academy Road and Exit 30 for Cottman. The northbound side of I-95 collapsed before 8 a.m. and the southbound side is not structurally sound to carry traffic, officials determined.
All lanes of I-95 are now closed in both directions between the Woodhaven and Aramingo exits, officials say. Other streets are closed for the response. The state has set up a website for the public to monitor updates regarding the highway collapse, detours and other transportation resources.
The fire under the highway was caused by a commercial truck carrying a petroleum-based product, officials said. The truck remains trapped under the rubble. Investigators are still working to identify whether anyone was caught in the fire and the collapse. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
In a video shared on Twitter Sunday morning, before the highway span collapsed, the roadway dipped and buckled as cars drove past billowing smoke from the fire.
The Philadelphia Fire Department had the fire under control by 7:30 a.m., but there is an ongoing emergency response from city, state and federal agencies to assess the full damage and remove the debris.
"We will continue that effort over the next 24 hours through the night to make sure that we have the collapsed section removed as speedily as possible, and then advance efforts with respect to the replacement and repair going forward," PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said.
In addition to the recommended detours and expanded SEPTA service in the days and weeks ahead, Shapiro said the agencies responding to the highway collapse are working on alternative methods to help people safely get where they need to go.
"We're also looking at interim solutions to connect both sides of I-95 to get traffic through the area," Shapiro said, although it was not immediately clear Sunday afternoon how this might be accomplished. The segment of highway that collapsed Sunday carries about 160,000 vehicles per day.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation has been in constant communication with PennDOT and other agencies in preparation for diverted traffic, officials said.
"NJDOT and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority will support PennDOT in any way it can to alleviate the traffic issues arising from the fire, including coordination of on-road signage and messaging through several media platforms," Jim Barry, a spokesperson for NJDOT said in a statement. "Motorists are encouraged to plan additional time for their commutes and to be patient as all find the best detour route for their particular travels."
Concrete and debris from the road were seen covering the truck Sunday morning, NBC10 reported.
The Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management urges drivers to avoid the area of the highway collapse and to seek alternative travel routes.
Pennsylvania State Police, Philadelphia Police and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are establishing detour routes, including the following suggestions.
• I-95 Southbound: Route 63 West (Woodhaven Road), U.S. 1 South, 76 East, 676 East
• I-95 Northbound: I-676 West, I-76 West, U.S. 1 North to Route 63 East (Woodhaven Road)
For motorists traveling northbound, PennDOT has recommended taking I-76 West to I-676 West and then taking Exit 304B for U.S. 1/ Roosevelt Boulevard north. Drivers can then take the Woodhaven Road/Route 63 exit and travel east to get north of the the area of the collapse on I-95 North.
For motorists traveling southbound, PennDOT recommends taking Exit I-95 onto state Route 63/Woodhaven to U.S. 1/Roosevelt Blvd. south. Drivers can then get on I-76 East to I-676 East and merge onto I-95 South beyond the area of the of the collapsed highway.
Suggested detours will be shared on highway message boards in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the region as the situation evolves.
Commuters are encouraged to use SEPTA as an alternative means of travel. There will be expanded train service on the Trenton, West Trenton and Fox Chase Regional Rail lines to accommodate more travelers. Free parking will be available at Fern Rock, Fox Chase and Torresdale stations, in addition to all SEPTA Regional Rail lots, officials said.
"We are all going to need some extra patience in the coming days," SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards said. "Please work with us as we work through this, especially tomorrow morning. We ask employers to be as flexible as they can with their workforces. It's going to take longer than normal to get to work tomorrow."
SEPTA is currently working on a longer-term service plan and will provide updates as they become available, spokesperson Andrew Busch said.
Important SEPTA updates in response to I-95 collapse: pic.twitter.com/F0r8TlVe7I— SEPTA_SOCIAL (@SEPTA_SOCIAL) June 11, 2023
Shapiro was given an aerial tour of the collapsed highway on Sunday afternoon and spoke with city, state and federal partners about the damage.
"I found myself thanking the Lord that no motorists who were on I-95 were injured or died," Shapiro said. "Just a remarkably devastating site."
Environmental inspectors responded to a slight sheen of petroleum product in the entry area of the Delaware River during Sunday morning's fire, using booms to contain the water from contamination.
"There is no threat to anyone's drinking water and no threat to the water," Shapiro said.
The governor declined to answer questions about the owner of the truck under the highway and whether that outfit may be held responsible for any cleanup costs.
Sunday's fire and the damage to I-95 is reminiscent of the fire 27 years ago that ignited further south, also below the highway but in Philadelphia's Port Richmond neighborhood. That fire, on March 13, 1996, was fueled by burning tires, and the structural damage it caused closed I-95 for a two-mile stretch between Bridge Street and Girard Avenue for eight days.
The highway did not collapse from the 1996 tire fire, but the flames melted its concrete and steel supports. I-95 runs the length of the East Coast from Maine to Florida, and closing the eight-lane portion of the highway caused traffic disruptions throughout the region and beyond. Traffic jams persisted for months, even after it partially reopened as crews replaced a 180-foot section of the road.
The eight-alarm Port Richmond tire fire burned for five hours before being controlled. Hundreds of thousands of discarded tires had accumulated near Allen and Tioga streets and were set ablaze intentionally.
Within two days of the Port Richmond fire, charges were filed against four teens who started it, and eventually the owner of the property, David J. Carr, a Bucks County tire dealer responsible for storing the tires beneath I-95, also was charged.
In December 1996, Carr was convicted of risking a catastrophe, conspiracy and illegal dumping. He was sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison and ordered to pay millions in penalties and for the cost of repairs.
There was no immediate indication that Sunday's fire would result in criminal charges. Authorities are continuing their investigation.
This is a developing story. Updates to follow.