I-77 tunnel fire shuts down traffic; lanes begin to reopen
A tractor-trailer fire in the East River Tunnel Friday afternoon sent two firefighters to the hospital and shut down traffic all night on Interstate 77 near the Virginia/West Virginia border.
As of Saturday morning, one northbound lane and both southbound lanes of I-77 were had reopened, according to a Mercer County emergency dispatcher and the state Department of Transportation.
The Bluefield Daily Telegraph reports that the fire was extinguished by 5:50 p.m. Friday, more than 2½ hours after it was reported.
Mark Perkins, a firefighter with the Green Valley-Glenwood Volunteer Fire Department, said two of his colleagues were transported to Bluefield Regional Medical Center for treatment for smoke inhalation. Several other departments also responded.
Bluefield Fire Chief Jeff Warden said smoke pouring out of the tunnel was so thick that for about 50 feet from the entrance “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”
The semi caught fire in the Tunnel near Bluefield at about 3 p.m., Friday a dispatcher said.
As of 7 p.m., Friday evening traffic was still shut down in both directions, said Carrie Bly, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation. The truck was carrying cardboard, she said.
Northbound traffic was diverted at Interstate 81 in Wytheville, Virginia, said Michelle Earl, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Southbound traffic was rerouted at Exit 9 in West Virginia, Bly said. From there, drivers would embark on a possibly hours-long detour down U.S. 460 East toward Christiansburg, Virginia, she said. That route eventually takes drivers back to I-77, she said.
Not knowing at 7 p.m. how long southbound traffic would be closed, Bly said drivers should consider staying off the interstate for a few hours.
Olivia Congrove said she saw the blaze.
“We were about five cars back [when traffic stopped],” she told a Gazette-Mail reporter via Twitter. “Five minutes later, [the semi] blew up. The tunnel filled with smoke and they evacuated us.”
Congrove said cars were backing out of the tunnel, and her group had since found a detour to Ohio after camping in South Carolina.
“It was kind of scary, especially with little kids in the car,” she said.
Stacy Stoughton was traveling from South Carolina to Pittsburgh. She said the trailer was on fire as her group approached.
“We were heading through the tunnel. As we got closer, we saw some flames and a lot of black smoke in the tunnel,” she said via Twitter. “The flames were going over the hood of the truck. Everyone going northbound was backing out of the tunnel.”
According to the Virginia DOT news release, surrounding states have been notified of the closure and tunnel repairs are being arranged.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Jack Suntrup at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5100 or follow @jacksuntrup on Twitter.