Courtesy of Madera CHP
A wrecked semi-truck sits atop the concrete divider on the south-bound side of SR 99 just north of Avenue 12, mid-day on Friday. The single-vehicle wreck managed to close both north- and south-bound lanes and divert heavy traffic into both the city and county of Madera, snarling local traffic and quickly overwhelming city streets.
Ties up traffic between Merced, Fresno, clogs Madera streets
A single-vehicle crash on southbound State Route 99 just north of Avenue 12 brought all traffic on the heavily traveled north-south route to a halt and then to almost a standstill, for four to five more hours according to the California Highway Patrol.
Roadways in the city and county of Madera were further impacted by the heavy traffic when the many thousands of frustrated and out-of-area drivers exited highway 99 and attempted to use their GPS navigation systems to find another route around the backup on SR 99, only adding to the local gridlock.
CHP Public Information Officer Greg Rodriguez said the incident happened about 11:15 a.m. Friday when a semi tractor without a trailer reportedly swerved sharply left to avoid a slowing vehicle in front of him and struck the center divider at highway speed, shattering the concrete K rail and ejecting large chunks of concrete all across the northbound lanes, striking at least four other vehicles. No injuries were reported in those vehicles.
The wrecked semi then became quite a spectacle for the slowly passing drivers as it was hung up on top of the remaining K rail center divider, and to complicate matters further, diesel fuel was leaking from a small rupture in the semi’s large fuel tanks — a leak that eventually swelled to 100 gallons, according to the CHP. Another northbound semi truck and trailer struck by the flying concrete also began leaking — a leak that eventually reached about 50 gallons of diesel fuel on the northbound side and had to stop on the Gateway off ramp, creating another roadblock and hazardous material site.
“We only closed one lane southbound, but the traffic merging into that one remaining lane caused (significant) delays. People were exiting at Avenue 17 or wherever they could, but there was just nowhere to go. Traffic was impacted at least all the way north past Avenue 21 and south to Herndon Avenue, and even out to Highway 145.
“Then the northbound lanes also had to be cleared of the concrete chunks by a roadway sweeper. “Fortunately there were no injuries in those vehicles, but the driver of the (south-bound) semi was taken to Madera Community Hospital with moderate injuries.” Rodriguez said.
Caltrans highway signs reportedly began warning northbound drivers of the roadway closure as far south as Shaw Avenue in Fresno, and southbound drivers as far north as the Merced County line, adding to the volume of drivers looking for alternative routes.
Officers estimated as many as 10,000 to 20,000 excess vehicles suddenly began clogging Madera roadways, and called it the perfect storm of conditions for city- and county-wide traffic gridlock, with the two existing lanes of SR 99 already considered inadequate to carry the heavy north and south traffic, combined with a Friday afternoon spring traffic and drivers being prompted by their GPSes to exit, hoping — to no avail — GPS could quickly reroute them around the blockage by using the smaller surface streets.
Tow trucks, police and other emergency vehicles also had difficulty reaching the two separate incident sites of the blocked highway, as motorists illegally drove on the roadway shoulders out of frustration.
The northbound lanes were cleared of concrete debris by a street sweeper after about two to three hours. The one remaining lane of southbound traffic intermittently stopped, moved at approximately 6 to 8 mph for several more hours as emergency crews worked to transport the injured semi-truck driver, stop the leakages of diesel fuel, remove the semi from the top of the concrete K rail and then replace the center divider. Southbound traffic did not return to normal until sometime after 5 pm.
Madera Police Chief Dino Lawson said the nine Madera police officers on duty assisted with the unusual incident and the mass of snarled traffic where they could, but the large volume of vehicles quickly created gridlock in Madera, and the city and other local streets were not designed to handle that large amount of excess vehicle traffic. Lawson said that, fortunately, no secondary incidents or collisions were reported, and he thought officers did an outstanding job of handling the sudden and intense situation.
Lawson also said he wanted to thank drivers for their patience and understanding, as it was difficult for residents to get anywhere around town during the time of the five-hour incident.