A tanker truck hauling 12,000 gallons of gasoline overturned and ignited in a towering fireball that shut down the Long Island Expressway Saturday, killing the driver and causing damage that road crews scrambled overnight to repair, officials said.
The crash and fire just east of Exit 48 in Melville brought down a sign gantry that spanned the highway and closed the westbound lanes for 10 hours and the eastbound lanes indefinitely.
"I heard it [the tanker] explode, I didn't know what it was," said Sean Rashti, office manager at the nearby Four Points Sheraton. He ran outside to a scene "like something out of the movies."
While the westbound lanes reopened at 6:10 p.m., Department of Transportation crews worked throught the night to fill a 200-foot-wide hole in the eastbound lanes. All lines of the the raodway were reopened just after 4:30 a.a. Sunday.
DOT spokeswoman Eileen Peters said asphalt was brought in, and as soon as the debris was cleaned up, the road would be repaved. By 10 p.m., workers were putting material into the hole.
Heat from the blaze just east of the Round Swamp Road exit cooked the eastbound lanes, causing extensive road damage and melted the 175-foot sign gantry, which crashed onto the eight-lane stretch of highway as firefighters battled the blaze.
"We knew it was coming down - it started to bow," said Michael Carrieri, first assistant chief of the Melville Fire Department, whose crews were among the first on the scene shortly after the 8 a.m. crash.
The gantry supported two overhead INFORM signs as well as HOV entrance and guideline signs, officials said.
Gil Delez, 36, a maintenance worker from Amityville, said he saw the gantry appear to melt before it collapsed, and the embankment and the trees "all lit up" from the flames.
The body of the driver, Mujahid Shah, 57, of Brooklyn, remained in the charred tanker for six hours.
Shah was identified by his Maine-based employer, Kittery Transport Inc. "It is terrible to lose an employee and especially to lose an employee in this way," said the company's owner, Sam Jacobi.
Jacobi said the driver had been with the company three years. "He was a good man, a family man," he said.
Witnesses and officials described an immediate burst of intense flame after the fully loaded fuel truck hit a Dodge Neon from behind, careened past the damaged car and flipped in the center of the road. It came to rest under the sign gantry.
Burning gasoline from the tanker spilled onto the roadway, flowed into expressway storm drains and ran down an embankment, engulfing asphalt and the embankment in flames for more than an hour.
More than 1,000 gallons of fuel and fire-retardent foam used by firefighters remained in the tanker after the blaze was extinguished at 8:59 a.m. and was pumped out by environmental crews.
Officials sought to limit the environmental damage by surrounding storm drains with loose sand. Spill-response teams from the Department of Environmental Conservation were on the scene, assessing a sizable cleanup.
"Between tonight [Saturday] and tomorrow [Sunday] most of the contamination will be removed," said DEC official Nick Acampora. "We'll have to come back [Sunday] to reassess" the damage, including a spill into a local retaining basin.
Firefighters and emergency crews from 18 separate departments and agencies battled the black, smoky blaze.