3 people die in freeway tunnel crash in California

Firefighters finished their work in a freeway tunnel where three people died in a fiery, 29-vehicle pileup that could keep a major interstate shut down for days.

Investigators determined 28 commercial vehicles and one passenger vehicle were involved in the crash late Friday that killed three people and injured at least 10, Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp said.

The search of the debris ended Sunday morning and confirmed no more fatalities.

With the large numbers of vehicles trapped inside the tunnel, "there was a potential for a greater number of critical injuries, let alone fatalities," Tripp said.

At the scene, a large front loader shoveled blackened debris into a dump truck. Investigators moved among the wreckage, examining debris and taking notes. Charred axles, wheel rims and other vehicle parts were discernible among the twisted, blackened mass of debris.

California Highway Patrol Assistant Chief Warren Stanley said authorities would finish their on-scene investigation shortly, but did not know when their findings would be released.

Officials hoped to reopen the southbound lanes of the closed freeway by Tuesday - possibly with detours around the tunnel area - with northbound lanes reopening within 24 hours after that, California Department of Transportation district director Doug Failing said.

But he could not say for sure when the freeway would open because of concerns about extensive damage to the tunnel's walls, which broke apart due to heavy flames.

At least five big rigs burst into flames that spread to other vehicles and burned a full day after the crash on a rainy Friday night. At the height of the fire, flames shot out of both ends of the 550-foot (168-meter)-long tunnel, rising as high as 100 feet (30 meters), firefighters said.

About 300 firefighters were fighting the fire early Saturday, and the intense heat caused concrete to crack and melt, sending chunks falling onto a road below. Small fires lingered even as debris was being removed Saturday afternoon.

The bodies of two crash victims were found early Saturday and a third was found later in the day, authorities said. The dead were two adult males and one child, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Jason Hurd said Sunday.

The bodies of one man and the child were in the cab of a truck hauling cantaloupe, which appeared to have hit a pillar outside the tunnel, a fire official told The Associated Press on condition his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak about the crash.

The other body was found in a truck about 12 feet (3.7 meters) short of the tunnel's exit, said the official.

The ages of the victims were unknown. County coroner's investigator Kelly Yagerlener said it could be several days before the names of the dead were released.

Ten people had minor or moderate injuries, and 10 others were in the tunnel when the crash occurred, but managed to escape unharmed, Stanley said.

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 (50 kilometers) north of downtown Los Angeles.

Trucker Tony Brazil told reporters at the crash site that he came to a stop after seeing an accident in front of him.

"Then they just start hitting me, one right after another," Brazil said. "A couple drivers come over the top of the truck and (said), 'Get out of here, let's get out of here,' so I got my wallet and my phone and I was able to squeeze between that truck there and the wall."

Tripp said the fire burned at its peak for up to four hours, with temperatures ranging from 1,000 to 1,400 degrees (540 to 760 Celsius).

"It consumed everything that was burnable," he said, leaving behind only "molten metal, frames of vehicles."

The pileup snarled traffic for miles (kilometers) in all directions over the weekend as motorists had to navigate neighborhood streets and mountain roads to get around the wreck.

Interstate 5 is a key route connecting Southern and Northern California, as well as a major commuter link between Los Angeles and its northern suburbs.

The tunnel, built in the 1970s, and its mix of curves and darkness has long been regarded by truckers as one of the most dangerous areas of the freeway.

"There's kind of a blind spot, so if you boogie around the bend too fast and there's somebody stopped in the tunnel, it'll be 'boom-boom-boom', Arthur Johnson, 45, of Buckeye, Arizona, told the Los Angeles Times.

Truck driver Fausto Angelino said he has been driving that stretch of road for 23 years.

"I hold my breath every time," he said.

The stretch of freeway carries about 225,000 vehicles a day, and there are likely to be huge traffic jams in the area when people return to work Monday.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova