HAWTHORNE, Calif. (FOX 11 / CNS) - A fiery crash involving a gasoline tanker truck and an SUV on the westbound Century (105) Freeway in Hawthorne today left both drivers dead and prompted closure of the freeway in both directions.
The collision occurred about 5:15 a.m. on the westbound 105 near Prairie Avenue, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The names of the drivers who died in the crash were withheld, pending notification of their relatives.
Uber driver Hisaki Shimidu told reporters he saw the SUV speeding through traffic before the crash.
"I saw one reckless driver (going) very fast -- 75 to 80 miles per hour ... almost like racing," Shimidu said. The SUV then struck the center divider, he said.
CHP Capt. Doug Young said at a late-morning news briefing that investigators had not yet spoken to witnesses, and the cause of the crash remained under investigation.
"Initial reports are that a tanker truck and an SUV became entangled in some form of traffic collision," he said. "Both vehicles struck the center divider, overturned and caught fire."
The resulting inferno resulted in a full closure of the freeway in both directions, backing up traffic for miles at the onset of the morning rush hour. Fire crews arriving at the scene found a raging, gasoline-fed fire. They initially began pouring water on the blaze, but after realizing they would be unable to douse the flames -- and that nobody in either vehicle could have survived the inferno -- they opted to let the blaze burn itself out. That took about two hours.
The big rig involved in the crash was hauling a pair of tanks, only one of which caught fire. The second overturned but remained intact, Young said.
With fuel pouring out of the burning portion of the tanker onto the roadway shoulder, firefighters dammed the flow so crews could clean up the spill. Another tanker truck was brought in to remove gasoline from the rear tanker trailer that didn't burn. By late morning, that effort was continuing.
Officials said until the fuel-unloading was completed, coroner's officials would not be able to enter the scene to remove the remains -- and determine if there were more people in either of the burned vehicles.
With both sides of the freeway closed, the 105 Freeway was turned into a parking lot. At least one trapped motorist could be seen getting out of his trapped vehicle with luggage, apparently hoping to find an alternate way to Los Angeles International Airport on foot.
Operators of a food truck on the freeway opened for business near the center divider, serving the stranded drivers.
The eastbound side of the 105 Freeway reopened at about 8 a.m., but westbound lanes remained closed as of midday, and will remain blocked until the wreckage can be removed from the roadway and the freeway can be inspected for damage.
Lauren Wonder of Caltrans said if damage to the pavement is minimal, the agency will simply have to re-stripe the lanes and the freeway could reopen Friday afternoon. But if the pavement is more severely damaged, the closure could last throughout the day.
Service on the Metro Green Line light rail, which runs along the center of the freeway, was suspended between the Hawthorne/Lennox and Vermont/Athens stations due to the fire. Buses were brought in to shuttle passengers through the affected area, but passengers were being advised to expect extensive delays and consider alternate forms of travel.
Bernard Jackson, Metro's senior executive officer for rail operations, said the agency was waiting for the scene to clear so its engineers can inspect the railway tracks for damage. He also noted that the overhead electrical lines that power the trains appeared to have been damaged, so crews will have to repair and replace them.
"This could very well turn into a one-, two- or three-day event depending on what we determine the damage to be," Jackson said.