EB I-94 closed through weekend after fiery crash

Tom Greenwood and Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Eastbound lanes of Interstate 94 affected by a tanker fire Wednesday will remain closed through the weekend, the state transportation department said.

Westbound lanes of I-94 reopened Wednesday afternoon, easing the evening commute, following the 11:15 a.m. crash on eastbound lanes at Wyoming. No one was seriously injured.

Firefighting crews extinguished the fire by 1 p.m., roughly two hours after the crash sent roiling flames hundreds of feet into the blue sky. The Michigan Department of Transportation announced the closing through the weekend on eastbound lanes at M-39 (Southfield Freeway) via its Twitter account on Wednesday night.

An investigation has begun after damage was found to the pavement and center barrier walls from vehicle impact, heat and leaked fuel, said MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi.

"Superficial damage is one thing; structural damage is a completely different thing," he said.

MDOT will pay close attention to the nearby overpass, Morosi said.

"This is a different situation than five years ago when a gas tanker exploded beneath an overpass on northbound I-75 at Nine Mile in Hazel Park," Morosi said. "That was directly under the span and basically incinerated it. This isn't the same situation but there's still the chance that the heat could have caused some structural damage."

HAZMAT crews were on the scene Wednesday cleaning up the fuel, he said.

"They do an incredible job; they'll get the actual fuel off the roadway and they'll work on the drainage structures," he said. "They'll partner with the city to see what parts of the drainage structure need to be cleaned up."

Morosi said the Detroit Sewerage and Water Department would help assess if any drainage structures were damaged.

"There's a lot of damage," he said. "It's just a lot of investigative work, and that investigative work does take time."

The crash involved a tanker and two cars, according to Lt. Doug Topolski of the Dearborn Police Department.

Shortly after the initial crash, a series of massive explosions echoed off nearby buildings while lofting a plume of inky black smoke that could be seen for miles.

Burning fuel leaked into the drainage system below the pavement, resulting in flames erupting from drainage grates dozens of yards from the tanker.

Topolski said he could see clouds of smoke from his office at Dearborn Police Headquarters near Greenfield and Michigan, which was about two miles from the crash site.

According to the Dearborn Fire Fighters Association, there were only minor injuries from the crash, and the tanker driver survived.

A large expansion foam fire truck from the Marathon Refinery was called in for help, according to the firefighters association.

Michael Berry said he rushed outside after he heard a series of loud explosions from inside his car wash business on McGraw and Wyoming, north of the expressway.

"You could feel the heat of the flames on your face," he said. "I saw the occupants on the freeway running away from the vehicles."

Berry, who owns Splash Auto Wash, said he sees at least one accident a month at the curve of I-94 at Wyoming. "That's a bad curve but I've never seen anything like this in the 10 years I've been here," he said.

Silvia Campos said she was a few blocks away inside her home on the corner of Michigan and Cabot when she heard an explosion.

"The first thing I thought is it was a bomb," Campos said.

Campos, 60, ran to the scene in flip flops and sweatpants as thick black smoke blew in her direction. She covered her mouth with her shirt, she said.

When she arrived, Campos saw red balls of fire on the expressway.

She said the expressway near Wyoming is too narrow. "I drive this constantly and there are a lot of accidents," she said. "It's too congested."

Arnold Mitchell, a 49-year-old truck driver with Global Trucking, said he was in the company's yard just north of the expressway when he heard an explosion.

"When I turned around I saw a bunch of black smoke, so I jumped the fence onto the embankment and all I saw was a big ball of red fire," he said.

Mitchell said the heat felt like "a thousand degrees."

"I got about a football field and a half away and I could still feel the heat," he said.


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Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.