ELLENTON — Drivers headed south on Interstate 75 through this weekend can expect a two-hour detour, but some relief should arrive soon.
While officials continue to investigate Wednesday's fiery crash that closed the interstate near Ellenton Prime Outlets mall, they plan to funnel both southbound and northbound traffic across the bridge's undamaged northbound span starting Monday morning.
They're creating a temporary four-lane highway divided by a concrete wall running along the bridge. This will be a stopgap solution during a six-week emergency demolition and repair of the southbound span, which was weakened by an intense fire when a fuel tanker plunged off the overpass and exploded on the road beneath it.
The tanker's driver, 54-year-old Raymond Neumann of Brooksville, remained in critical condition with severe burns Thursday at Tampa General Hospital. Friends described him as a devoted father who was supposed to watch one of his sons get his high school diploma Thursday night.
State officials pledged to work around the clock to fix I-75, one of Florida's major north-south traffic arteries. Long lines of cars and trucks spilling off the highway Thursday led to daylong gridlock on U.S. 19, U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 in Palmetto and Bradenton, and motorists can expect more of the same today.
The threat of traffic jams has also cooled business in Ellenton's 130-store outlet mall.
"We're moving traffic, but it's slow going," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Larry Dodson. "We have a plan, but the bad news is it's going to take a couple of days."
Over the weekend, highway engineers will prepare to reroute southbound traffic onto the northbound bridge. They'll pour pavement across the medians on the approaches to the bridge, plant concrete barriers down the bridge's center, and paint four narrow lanes onto what is now a three-lane span with shoulders.
The goal is to be ready by Monday's rush hour, said Debbie Tower, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. I-75 drivers should still expect some slowdowns around Ellenton through mid July because there will be fewer lanes and the speed limit on the bridge will likely be 40 to 45 mph.
Cranes will soon demolish two concrete-and-steel sections of the southbound bridge as well as support columns that were charred by the inferno when the fuel tanker caught fire. It's unclear when U.S. 301 beneath the overpass will reopen. On Thursday, cars were passing beneath the bridge and getting to the outlet mall via a frontage road just south of U.S. 301.
The tanker's driver, Neumann, was headed south on I-75 Wednesday evening when he swerved to avoid a truck that had lost control on the rain-slick road, the FHP said. The accident is under investigation.
One of Neumann's sons was graduating Thursday night from a Hernando County high school. Friends who live near the Spring Hill home that Neumann once shared with his ex-wife described him as a devoted family man.
"He's just a wonderful, wonderful father," said Jennifer Selzer, who lives two houses away. He and his ex-wife remained close, she said, and he was often in the neighborhood to visit his kids or help around the house.
"He was always waving, always saying 'hi' to the (neighborhood) kids," she said. "It's devastated the block."
Outlet mall's woes
When Lisa Bolle pulled into the Ellenton Prime Outlets on Thursday, she didn't need news reports to tell her something wasn't quite right.
She had no problem finding a parking space.
"I'm looking out at the traffic, looking how I'm going to find an alternate route," Bolle said as a mile-long line of cars crept by.
A day after the tanker exploded just a few blocks away, the outdoor mall wasn't quite a ghost town Thursday, but it was largely populated by store employees.
Wendy Bonaddio, assistant manager at the mall's Coach store, said employees were finding new ways to get home. "The back roads — they're dark, they're scary, we don't know them well."
JoAnn Lamothe, visiting the outlets from Tampa, consulted a map to find her way around the southbound traffic snarl — and to a new pair of camouflage-pattern Converse sneakers. She and her family and friends braved an alternate route via back roads and U.S. 301.
"We just looked on a map and followed it," Lamothe said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached
or (813) 226-3435.