( AP ) - A late-night crash in a Southern California freeway tunnel quickly turned into a fiery, chain-reaction pileup that mangled several trucks, killed at least two people and shut down the key north-south route as the wreckage burned into Saturday.
The crash late the night before involved an estimated 15 big rigs and possibly one or more passenger cars and sent people fleeing for their lives from the flaming tunnel. At least five of the trucks burst into flames, and the fire spread to the others. Ten people were injured.
"It looked like a bomb went off," said Los Angeles County firefighter Scott Clark, one of about 300 firefighters who battled the blaze through the night.
The bodies of two crash victims were found in the tunnel Saturday, said California Highway Patrol Officer David Porter. He couldn't immediately say whether one of them was a trucker listed as missing.
Firefighters could find more bodies as they explored the charred tunnel Saturday, said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Ron Haralson.
The pileup in the southbound truck tunnel of Interstate 5 began about 11 p.m. Friday when two big rigs collided on the rain-slickened highway about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. As crashes continued throughout the tunnel, which is about an eighth of a mile long, five tractor-trailers burst into flames, and the fire quickly spread.
Firefighters estimated that at least 15 trucks were involved. The cause of the initial crash was being investigated, but authorities said it was raining at the time.
The charred skeletons of at least a half-dozen big rigs peeked out of the tunnel's south end Saturday. At least one was carrying produce, and a smoldering load of cabbage lay on the pavement. A pile of scorched truck debris protruded from a tunnel wall.
State transportation workers brought in heavy equipment and were helping firefighters haul away the blackened, twisted debris, Haralson said.
As the fire spread Friday night, flames shot out of both ends of the tunnel, rising as high as 100 feet into the air, firefighters at the scene said.
The intense heat caused concrete to crack and melt, sending chucks falling onto a road below throughout the night. Firefighters worried that the damage could cause parts of the tunnel to collapse, particularly if cars were allowed back onto a road that runs above it.
Interstate 5 is a key West Coast route running from Mexico to Canada, as well as a major commuter link between Los Angeles and its northern suburbs. There are likely to be huge traffic jams in the area if it is still closed when people return to work Monday.
By Saturday afternoon, all of the flames appeared to have been extinguished, and firefighters went inside.
The canyon surrounding the tunnel remained filled with thick, acrid smoke, however, and until they examined the wreckage, firefighters said, they wouldn't be able to tell whether any trucks had been hauling toxic chemicals.
Shortly after the crash, 20 people managed to escape the fiery tunnel on foot, including the 10 injured. Eight were reported to have minor injuries and two had moderate injuries. All were treated at hospitals, mainly for burns and neck and back injuries.
Although the tunnel is designed to carry truck traffic through a mountain pass area, Fire Inspector Jason Hurd said passenger cars may also use it, raising concerns that some might have been trapped inside.
"We're going to have to do a very methodical search," Tripp said. "There could be, unfortunately, more people that were not able to escape."
Hurd couldn't say when authorities might be able to reopen the section of freeway about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
"It could be another day, it could be days, it could be weeks," he said.
The section of freeway was shut down twice before, by earthquakes in 1971 and 1994, when large overpasses over canyons collapsed. The worst of the quakes, the Northridge quake of 1994, also damaged another nearby highway, snarling traffic throughout the area.