A crash involving a fuel delivery truck and a car sparked a spectacular fire on a major Connecticut highway bridge Friday, with flames spreading to land on one side and officials closing Interstate 95 in both directions during the blaze. Officials said the truck driver died and other people were injured.
The wreck happened shortly after 11 a.m. on the southbound side of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge carrying the highway over the Thames River between New London and Groton. The Gold Star actually comprises two steel truss bridges, one for southbound traffic and the other for northbound.
Northbound lanes were soon reopened, and two of the southbound lanes reopened early Friday evening, providing some relief for drivers. More than 60,000 vehicles a day travel over the spans, according to the state transportation commissioner, Garrett Eucalitto.
Gov. Ned Lamont and other officials said at an afternoon news conference that the truck spilled about 2,200 gallons of home heating oil, and some of it went into the river. State environmental crews worked to contain the spill.
“This was a tragic accident at 11:15 this morning,” Lamont said. “It looks like a passenger vehicle tire blew out, creating an incident” with the truck, which tipped over. “Billowing smoke, incredible flames, pouring right down through the pipes, spilling out into the Thames River.”
The Gold Star Memorial Bridge, Connecticut’s largest passenger and truck bridge at 6,000 feet in length, has been undergoing a major overhaul. In January, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited New London to announce that $158 million from a new federal infrastructure law was being awarded to accelerate repairs on the northbound span.
Videos from the scene showed flames burning and smoke rising from a lengthy section of the bridge and spreading to land on the Groton side. City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick said flaming debris fell from the bridge and caused brush fires below, but no one on the ground there was injured. He also said no buildings caught on fire, conflicting with early reports by state police.
After the fire was out, videos showed a portion of the protective fence on the side of the bridge completely melted and burns on the road.
New London’s mayor and fire chief told news outlets that the truck driver died in the crash and other people were taken to a hospital with serious injuries. Lamont said the injuries did not appear to be life-threatening.
The crash caused major traffic backups on the busy stretch of Interstate 95, the main north-south artery on the East Coast. The closest bridge over the Thames River is about 11 miles to the north, creating a long detour.
State Department of Transportation inspectors determined there was no damage to the bridge’s steel structure, said Josh Morgan, an agency spokesperson. It was unclear when the span’s remaining lanes will reopen.
Morgan also said there is extensive damage to the fencing and travel lanes where the crash occurred. A pedestrian sidewalk that runs the length of the bridge remains closed.
Seth Bottone, 48, was leaving work to head home from Groton as he does every day, when he saw the smoke and flames engulfing the bridge. Bottone snapped a video of the flames and was audibly in shock.
“I saw the smoke from a distance, thought it was something from underneath,” he said. “As I got closer, I was like, ‘oh my goodness.’”
Bottone said police then directed traffic to turn around and head northbound.
Angelique Feliciano, 40, had accidentally taken a wrong turn and ended up on the bridge as the fire trucks arrived. Feliciano said she has seen numerous accidents in Groton but nothing like the incident Friday.
“The highway looked like it was on fire itself,” she said. “It was scary. I wanted to get off the bridge as soon as possible.”
The U.S. Naval Submarine Base New London is a short distance north of the bridge, and the submarines stationed there have to travel under the Gold Star to reach the ocean.
Nina Basantes, a spokeswoman for the Navy, said the fire was not impacting operations at the submarine base. The Navy sent three fire trucks and a team of firefighters to the site to help with mutual aid.