Overturned fuel truck snarls I-5 traffic for hours

It was a day of drama, danger and frustration on Interstate 5, as two major accidents Thursday snarled traffic throughout Pierce County and parts of South King County.

First, a tanker truck carrying 7,700 gallons of fuel overturned about 9:15 a.m. while trying to get onto Interstate 5 near Port of Tacoma Road, spilling an unknown amount of gasoline. The incident forced a three-hour closure of I-5 in Fife and prompted the evacuation of nearby businesses.

Then, only a few hours later, a motor home rear-ended a car that had slowed for the earlier backup, pushing it under a box truck, severely injuring the woman driver. The resulting backup in the southbound lanes stretched for 9 miles.

The tanker accident happened at the Port of Tacoma offramp, when the two-trailer truck too the entrance ramp too fast, troopers said..

“He came in a little hot and didn’t quite make the corner to get onto I-5,” State Patrol Trooper Todd Bartolac.

The truck was pulling two tanker trailers. The front one overturned and began leaking gasoline through gashes in the tank walls. The driver, a 36-year-old Ephrata man, was not injured.

A Tacoma Fire hazardous materials team and officials from the state Department of Ecology determined that a single tank holding more than 3,000 gallons of fuel ruptured.

The remaining fuel was pumped from the overturned tanker into another semi-truck’s fuel trailers Thursday afternoon before wreckers righted the trailer.

Ecology workers were performing air testing to make sure there are no vapors left, and department technicians believe most of the fuel spilled into the ground, Bartolac said.

The contaminated soil will have to be immediately excavated, Bartolac said, and the ramps will likely remain closed until that is complete.

The last lanes of I-5 did not reopen until 12:24 p.m. Exits 136A and 136B remained closed as of 5 p.m.

Everybody within a half-mile radius of the accident scene was evacuated.

Danny Ventler, general manager of I-5 Motors on 20th Street East in Fife, said the State Patrol had ordered evacuations on both sides of that street, which runs parallel to the interstate.

“They said it is leaking into the brush behind our dealership,” Ventler said.

Ventler said he was told to keep the area clear “at least through today, possibly tomorrow.”

Marc Sanchez, a parts salesman with Western Peterbilt, said about 20 people got the evacuation order at his business a little after 9:30 a.m. They set up temporary operations at the business’s other outpost, on state Route 99 outside the evacuation zone.

Sanchez said traffic snarled by the wreck wreaked havoc on his drivers who were out on business calls.

“I got one driver who’s in Seattle,” Sanchez said. “He’s not going to make it here anytime soon.”

A second tanker truck was brought to the scene to pump out the remaining fuel from the overturned truck.

The State Patrol diverted drivers off I-5 onto Portland Avenue.

Traffic was backed up on northbound I-5 through Lakewood, and on state routes 16, 18, 167, 509 and 512, Washington Department of Transportation spokeswoman Karen Mitchell said.

Traffic backups were heavy along River Road, West Pioneer Avenue and Stewart and Main streets in Puyallup, police there said. Pierce Transitexperienced delays on its 500 and 501 routes.

Soon after troopers reopened the freeway, another crash in south King County closed the southbound lanes.

The three-vehicle wreck on southbound I-5 in Federal Way at the exit for state Route 18 snarled traffic for hours. Two lanes remained closed as of 5 p.m., and the backup went on goes for 9 miles and one point, Mitchell said.

A motor home coming up on slowed traffic tried to slow down but couldn’t do so quickly enough, slamming into the back of a car and pushing the car under the back of a box truck, where it burst into flames, State Patrol Trooper Rick Johnson said.

The female passenger in the car had to be taken by helicopter to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with a burn to her right leg and a spine injury, Johnson said. The male driver of the car suffered a shoulder injury.

The motor home driver, who was not intoxicated, will likely be found at fault for that wreck, Johnson said.

Staff writer Derrick Nunnally contributed to this report.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker