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Crews begin clearing of Philadelphia I-95 highway collapse site

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By Brendan O’Brien

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) -An excavator removed huge chunks of concrete from the site of a collapsed overpass on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia on Monday, frustrating motorists and forcing them to seek alternatives to one of the U.S. East Coast’s busiest stretches of highways.

The section of I-95 was closed in both directions after a truck carrying gasoline caught fire on Sunday, causing the concrete to buckle and collapse. Authorities have not said how the fuel might have ignited.

Officials have not confirmed any injuries or fatalities, though local media reported on Monday that human remains were found at the scene.

The truck driver, who was identified as Nathaniel Moody, remains unaccounted for, local ABC affiliate WPVI TV reported.

The local coroner and mayor’s office were not immediately available to confirm the finding of human remains or the truck driver’s name.

During the morning commute, local traffic reporters said bumper-to-bumper traffic was spotted near the collapse and along alternate routes, but it appeared that some motorists heeded the warnings to take public transportation or stay home.

“Things are obviously getting worse moving into the heart of rush hour,” KYW News Radio traffic reporter Justin Drabick said around 8 a.m. EST (1200 GMT).

He noted that Mondays were typically a light traffic day. “Tomorrow is really going to be the true test.”

Workers and investigators spent the morning and early afternoon surveying the damage at the scene as an excavator clawed through the rubble and moved massive pieces of concrete where the section of highway once stood.

Officials said it would take several months to rebuild the segment of I-95. It is the main north-south highway along the East Coast, running from Miami to the Canadian border in Maine.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the federal government was working with the state of Pennsylvania to restore the highway.

“This is going to be a major disruption in that region,” Buttigieg said. He did not specify a precise timetable for a fix but said “definitely not days. I mean if it is weeks we’re not talking about a couple.”

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro issued a disaster declaration on Monday, freeing up federal funds to help in the rebuild the portion of a highway that is used by 160,000 vehicles daily.

He also urged residents to look for alternate routes, to take commuter trains or to work from home if possible.

Delivery companies UPS and FedEx said on Monday they were closely monitoring the situation and were making adjustments.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it had sent a team to investigate.

Buttigieg said the department planned to use emergency relief funding to help with the rebuilding but did not specify an amount. He also said Federal Highway Administration head Shailen Bhatt was in Philadelphia.

The closed section of I-95 is a major route to distribute goods, he said. “This is not just about commutes — this is also supply chain.”

Andy Herrmann, a past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said bridges are not designed to withstand the heat from a tanker truck fire, which could be upward of 2,000 Fahrenheit (1,090 Celsius), and that such incidents were not common.

Herrmann said Sunday’s collapse might prompt discussion about changing bridge design requirements, but it was difficult to see how the U.S. could afford to upgrade the many overpasses in the country.

“I mean, they’re looking to maintain the basic safety of the bridges due to deterioration,” he said.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, David Shepardson in Washington Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, and Andrea Shalal in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Lisa Shumaker and Mark Heinrich)

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