BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — A tanker truck caught fire underneath an overpass for I-95 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Sunday that caused the bridge to collapse and suspend traffic in both directions for an unknown period of time.

The Magic City is no stranger to tanker trucks that have destroyed major interstate overpasses right in the heart of the downtown. At the junction of Interstates 65, 59 and 20, there are two documented emergency bridge replacements that date back over 20 years ago.

The Alabama Department of Transportation says nearly 400,000 cars a day pass through this junction today.

In January of 2002, the Federal Highway Administration said a car pulled out in front of a gasoline truck to avoid missing an exit – which caused the truck to swerve and plow into support under I-65 South. The force of the fire to follow melted the overpass and spurred a quick, yet necessary emergency bridge replacement in what officials call one of Alabama’s most devastating highway crashes.  

ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris said the next days and weeks in Philadelphia will be much like the 2002 Alabama crash and accident in October of 2004 that also prompted an emergency rebuild, this time of an I-59/20 overpass. The emergency replacement of the I-59/I-20 eastbound bridge at the intersection of I-65 and I-59/I-20 was necessary after a tanker truck collided with the underside of the bridge, resulting in a fire that caused extensive damage.

“We have to be prepared at all times,” Harris said. “They will move to get under construction as quickly as possible and will try to have this all done in as concise and as tight of a period as they can.”

Harris said both projects were expedited because this area is well-traveled. The construction phase was completed in less than 40 days for both.

“This is a situation where it is truly an emergency – it is a state of emergency,” Harris said. “You’re able to do things in a situation like that you can’t normally do.”

ALDOT was able to offer monetary incentives to get the work done even more quickly. These incentives would have turned into penalties if deadlines were not met.

The 2002 project cost $2.09 million and was completed in 37 days. Because contractors finished early, they received an additional $1.3 million in incentives.

The 2004 project had a $5.45 million price tag and was completed in 36 days. Contractors this time got $1.4 million in incentives. Demolition began three hours after the fire was extinguished this time.

“It was incumbent on us each time we faced something like this to mount the fastest response we could to do the preliminary engineering and design work as quickly as possible,” Harris said. “When you have to detour that much traffic in one direction on an artery like that, there’s a tremendous cost to the traveling public to go around it.”

Harris said one of the best ways Alabama prepares for emergencies is annual hurricane reverse lane evacuation drills – that’s because so many officials are involved to get traffic safely to Montgomery. He believes the situation in Philadelphia is even worse than the accidents here and could take even longer to repair.

He emphasized that it is important to always pay attention to your surroundings when you are on the road to avoid accidents.

We also reached out to the Federal Highway Administration for a comment on the situation in Philadelphia and a spokesperson responded with the following:

“The safety of our nation’s roads and bridges and the people using them is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s top priority. The partial collapse in Philadelphia that occurred on Interstate 95 involving a gasoline tanker truck fire is currently being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is actively coordinating with state and local officials in the region, including the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and City of Philadelphia, as well as the New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland Departments of Transportation, in response to the collapse. The I-95 corridor is a vital connection for people and goods traveling along the East Coast, and FHWA has offered support and assistance to state and local officials to help them safely reopen this section of I-95 as quickly as possible. The FHWA Administrator is in Philadelphia today to offer federal support and assistance.”

Federal Highway Administration Spokesperson