Saturday, January 23, 2010

MELVILLE, N.Y. | A fuel truck flipped and exploded on New York’s Long Island Expressway on Saturday morning, killing the driver and creating a fireball seen for miles.

The heavily trafficked highway that connects the suburbs to New York City was closed in both directions for hours after the intense heat melted the supports for a huge road sign, which collapsed across all eight lanes of the roadway.

Westbound lanes were reopened about 6:15 p.m., officials said. The fire caused the pavement to buckle in the eastbound lanes, and workers were expected to begin repaving the road overnight, said Chief Michael Sharkey of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department.

Eileen Peters, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said that the agency was “cautiously optimistic” that the eastbound lanes could be repaired and reopened by Sunday.

She said about 200 feet of road that had melted needed to be repaved. She said DOT staff had been working throughout the day.

“They will continue through the night until we can open the roadway safely,” she said.

She could not estimate the cost for the repairs but said the state would seek to recuperate the cost through insurance.

Emergency crews battled the raging blaze for three hours after the 8 a.m. accident between Melville and Plainview near the Nassau County line. Heavy equipment was brought in to remove the fallen sign.

The tanker was operated by Maine-based Kittery Transport, authorities said, and the driver was identified as Mujahid Shah, 57, of Brooklyn.

The accident happened as the tanker sought to pass a small car that apparently was having mechanical problems and slowing down, Sharkey said.

He said the Dodge was trying to get to the shoulder of the highway when the tanker veered around it, struck it and lost control.

The tanker overturned, igniting into flames.

“It would appear that the driver of the truck was not able to get out of the vehicle,” Sharkey said. Rescuers extricated his body after the flames died down.

The woman at the wheel of the car was taken by helicopter to Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, where she was being treated for injuries that were not serious, Sharkey said.

Firefighters poured foam onto the smoldering truck, which they estimated still held about 1,500 gallons of gasoline. The fuel had been picked up Saturday morning in Brooklyn for delivery to Long Island.

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