TACOMA, Wash. - A semi-truck hauling a tanker burned out of control on Interstate 5 near the Tacoma Dome Thursday, shutting down the freeway during the afternoon rush hour.
Southbound I-5 is back open after being shut down for an hour. One northbound lane is back open, but the backup still extends to 72nd Street. All lanes reopened by 8 p.m.
The semi is in the right northbound lane. The cab is destroyed, but the tank is intact.
The fire started at about 4:30 p.m.
The Washington State Patrol says the driver - 32-year-old Robert Jager of Lakewood - was driving a 2000 Kenworth tanker truck northbound on I-5 at Pacific Avenue when he observed smoke coming from the engine. He pulled over when the engine became fully engulfed in flames.
Jager and his passenger - a trainee - quickly got out. They were not injured.
A fire engine approached the burning cab, but quickly moved away after seeing that the truck was clearly marked as carrying flammable materials. There were some explosions from the cab. It was initally believed to be the truck's diesel tanks, but it may have been the tires.
About an hour later, the fire had mostly burned itself out. Firefighters sprayed water and fire retardant on it to put out any hot spots.
The truck owner, Seattle-based Lee & Eastes Tank Lines, says the tank was empty having just dropped off a load of fuel, but that did not mean there was no danger.
Retired trucker James Lee says even when the tank is empty, the fumes inside can turn it into a bomb. Lee says resin in the cab's fiberglass body appears to have caught fire. That generated the heat which burned the paint off the front part of the tank.
Some drivers who were stuck on the McKinley overpass near the scene just stood and watched what was going on.
"It was on fire and blowing up, and I heard a big ol' boom," said one driver.
Washington State Dept. of Transportation spokesperson Jamie Holter says it could take awhile to completely re-open I-5. The northbound lanes will have to be checked for integrity.
This isn't the first time a Lee & Eastes truck was involved in a fire that shut down a Washington state freeway. In 2002, one of its trucks was cut off by another driver on I-90 in Issaquah. That led to a crash and a fire. Nobody was hurt.
KING 5's Kyle Moore and Owen Lei contributed to this report.