Last updated: June 18
The segment of I-95 in Northeast Philadelphia that collapsed after a gasoline tanker tipped over and exploded beneath an overpass will reopen to traffic within two weeks.
That’s the promise Gov. Josh Shapiro gave Saturday morning after taking an aerial tour of the reconstruction underway at the Cottman Avenue exit with President Joe Biden, who pledged the federal government would reimburse much of the cost.
“I can state with confidence that we will have I-95 reopened within the next two weeks,” Shapiro said during a press briefing.
Having a functional interim highway about three weeks after the bridge collapsed is a faster recovery than anyone expected. Shapiro originally pegged the repair process as “taking some number of months.”
Crews have been working around the clock at the site since the moment the emergency response wound down — as shown on the 24/7 livestream highway cam the governor’s office set up so that anyone could monitor the ongoing work. The rebuild began with laborers laying foamed glass aggregate as backfill to level the roadway surface.
The driver of the gasoline tanker, 53-year-old Nathan Moody, a father and husband who was transporting petroleum fuel for Pennsauken-based TK Transport, died in the crash.
No other related injuries or fatalities have been reported. That more people weren’t hurt seems a minor miracle, as 150,000 vehicles traverse that section of interstate each day, including 14,000 trucks.
The highway remains closed in both directions around the collapse. Southbound I-95 motorists can go as far south as Exit 30 (Cottman Avenue), according to PennDOT, and northbound motorists can go as far north as Exit 26 (Betsy Ross Bridge/Aramingo Avenue).
Gov. Shapiro’s office set up a website where updates will be posted — including recommended detour routes: pa.gov/i95updates.
Some nearby side streets have also been closed, frustrating restaurants in the area. Residents are dealing with huge trucks being diverted through their residential neighborhoods.
The Pa. Emergency Management Agency is working with the city to help local businesses in the area access SBA disaster loans, per the Shapiro administration. Businesses experiencing access problems should contact the city Dept. of Commerce at 215-683-2100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s what else we know about the situation.
Where exactly is the highway broken?
The collapse happened at the overpass where I-95 travels over the curving off ramp at Exit 30, in the Tacony neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia.
What caused the collapse?
The driver, Moody, is thought to have been traveling northbound when he exited at Cottman Avenue, rounded the off ramp, and crashed. Videos from surveillance cameras at a nearby parking lot show the truck erupting into a fiery inferno.
“From what we understand, the tractor-trailer was trying to navigate the curve, lost control of the vehicle, landed on its side and ruptured the tank and ignited the fire,” Pa. Transportation Secretary Mike Carroll said.
The high heat then caused buckling and melting in the steel girders holding up the overpass bridge — which were not reinforced with concrete, per The Inquirer. Eventually whole segments of the northbound lanes began crashing to the ground. The southbound lanes were “compromised,” authorities said, and were dismantled before reconstruction work began.
The National Transportation Safety Board has initiated an investigation into the crash. The preliminary report should be available about two or three weeks after the fire, NTSB officials said.
What was the truck carrying, and why?
The tractor-trailer is thought to have been carrying 8,500 gallons of highly flammable gasoline for Pennsauken-based carrier TK Transport.
That company is a subsidiary of Chester Springs-based Penn Tank Lines, according to The Inquirer. TK Transport was involved in a previous fiery truck crash; in 2015 a driver working for the Pennsauken company spun out of control while coming off the Betsy Ross Bridge.
TK Transport is not authorized to operate as an interstate, for-hire carrier, according to U.S. Dept. of Transportation records.
Who was the driver?
Moody lived in Merchantville, N.J., was a father of three, and a veteran, according to a GoFundMe set up to raise money to support his widow, Theresa Baylock. As of June 17, over $27,000 had been raised toward a $100k goal.
Manholes were exploding?
Right after the crash, neighbors in Tacony and the surrounding areas reported hearing large explosions, with at least one person reporting seeing a utility hole cover go flying through the air.
Was there any environmental hazard?
Some gasoline runoff may have leaked into the Delaware River — Gov. Shapiro described seeing “a slight sheen” on the waterway right near the collapse when he did his first aerial tour. The Coast Guard worked with the Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection on mitigation efforts.
There was no worry about it affecting drinking water, per Brendan Riley, director of operations for the Philadelphia Water Department, who said, “We have no concerns of impact on our Baxter Drinking Water Treatment Plant.”
How will the highway reconstruction be handled?
PennDOT hired Philly-based highway contractor Buckley & Co. to reconstruct the highway. The project is expected to rely on many local building trades workers.
“We have a commitment that this stuff that you call rain won’t stop us, wind won’t stop us,” said Ryan Boyer, business manager for the Philadelphia Building Trades. “Without it being an act of God, you’ll see construction workers here every day, all day.”
After the surface is evened out with backfill made from recycled glass, work will start on the temporary road that will open to traffic. Built right in the center of the “void,” said according to Pa. Transportation Sec. Carroll, will be six lanes — three for northbound and three for southbound.
The outer 35 feet will be under construction and not impact traffic. Once completed, the reconstruction will then move toward the center of the bridge.
A similar rebuild of I-85 in Atlanta, where a massive fire in 2017 caused an overpass bridge to collapse, happened more quickly than expected. After the state announced an incentive program that paid bonuses to contractors if they finished early, repairs were completed in just six weeks, over a month ahead of schedule.
Who’s paying for this rebuild?
A day after the collapse, Gov. Shapiro signed a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency, which frees up $7 million in state funds to be used for the reconstruction. The declaration also allows Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Department, and State Troopers to access additional resources.
A couple of days later, Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman and U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle announced $3 million in federal emergency funding for the collapse. The money will go to PennDOT to assist with repairs.
During Biden’s tour of the site a week after the crash, the president pledged to reimburse the state for 100% of the first part of the reconstruction — at least “the first 100 days,” he said, and 90% after that.
What are alternatives for commuters?
SEPTA has scrambled to add service on the Trenton, West Trenton and Fox Chase Regional Rail lines. General Manager Leslie Richards reminded people you can pay for your ride using a credit card after you get on the train.
There’s also free parking for public transit users at many of the lots near SEPTA stations, including at Fern Rock, Fox Chase, Torresdale, and the Frankford Transportation Center.
Short on staff, SEPTA is hustling to be an alternative for Northeast Philly commuters cut off by I-95 collapse
Has Philly’s interstate collapsed before?
In 1996, a massive tire fire below an overpass in Port Richmond — where approximately 10,000 tires had been illegally dumped — caused part of the highway to melt.
The entire concrete slab didn’t fall to the earth like in the current incident, but the fire caused a shutdown of I-95 that lasted eight days. Traffic didn’t return to normal for months.
Why does that area sound familiar?
Even if you’re not from Philly or never travel to that section of the city, several commenters have pointed out you might be familiar with that neighborhood: it’s home to the infamous Four Seasons Total Landscaping.
This article was originally published June 11 and has been extensively updated.