BUFORD - A tanker truck carrying liquid latex overturned on Interstate 85 South near Ga. Highway 20 early Tuesday morning, spawning a 12-hour traffic nightmare for thousands of regional commuters as state transportation workers struggled to clean up and repair the damaged highway.
The commuter headaches will continue today, as the Georgia Department of Transportation plans to close one lane of I-85 South just south of Ga. 20 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to repair asphalt that melted when the tanker truck caught fire.
The wreck on Tuesday caused officials to close all lanes of I-85 South shortly after 4 a.m., and they were not reopened until 3:50 p.m., said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation. That decision created a chain-reaction traffic buildup on nearly every other roadway in the Gwinnett area.
It also caused gridlock on Ga. 20 in front of the Mall of Georgia as motorists heading south on I-85 were diverted westward over to I-985 South.
"Every road in northern Gwinnett County was congested today," Pope said Tuesday. "Ga. 20 was gridlock all day long. This morning Ga. 124, 211, 324, and 400, and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Satellite Boulevard had extra volume on it."
The tanker truck lost control shortly after 4 a.m. near the rest stop on I-85 South just south of Ga. 20. It struck and slid along the guardrail for about 200 feet before overturning and striking two other cars, said Horatio Puerta, assistant area engineer maintenance for GDOT.
Ralph Holt, a truck driver from Stone Mountain, was driving the tanker truck for A.J. Weigand Inc. from North Carolina to Dalton. Latex is used there for carpet backing. Shortly after 4 a.m., Holt said his tire blew out.
"I heard a pop, and my steering wheel started getting tight on me," Holt said as he sat on a guardrail overlooking the wreckage. "It started to veer to the right. I worried about hitting the trees and the tractor doing some serious damage."
As the tanker was sliding along the guardrail it caught fire, but Holt said he was able to roll down the window and climb out before being burned.
None of the motorists involved had to be hospitalized, however, Holt suffered a large bump and a few scrapes on his forehead where it slammed into the steering wheel. Holt said he has been driving tractor-trailers and tanker trucks since 1991 and he had never had a wreck.
"I'm going to go to a doctor, go to my house and lay down," he said.
Gwinnett firefighters worked for an hour to put out the blaze in the cab and prevent an explosion. The latex inside the tanker did not spill, so it took about three hours to pump it into another tanker truck. Then workers had to upright the mangled tanker and haul it away on two tow trucks, Pope said.
A crew on the scene also had to replace the damaged section of guardrail, which took about two hours.
"There is a steep drop-off there on the right shoulder on the roadway and we did not want to reopen that road without the guardrail," Pope said.
While the cleanup was going on, about 40,000 southbound commuters who travel on I-85 South each day trickled onto other area roadways. At its worst, traffic on I-85 was backed up about six miles, north of the Hamilton Mill exit. Ga. 20 was also choked with cars.
Rick Montoro, the manager of RaceTrac gas station on 2682 Buford Drive (Ga. 20), said business was booming.
"We had probably about 100 people coming in asking for different ways to get on 85," Montoro said. "It started at 5 this morning. This road was backed up as far as you could see, and it was like that pretty much all this morning ... We sold a bunch of coffee."