(CBS/AP) SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Traffic was snarled for a half day Friday as Northern California's main east-west freeway was shut down near Sacramento during the search for an armed carjacking suspect who kept swarms of law enforcement officers hop-scotching across a wide area around the state capital.
The California Highway Patrol reopened the freeway around 12:30 p.m., roughly six and a half hours after shutting it down.
Interstate 80 had been transformed into a parking lot in both directions as officers began scouring a vast flood control basin just west of Sacramento, then began following the suspect's trail miles away to a neighborhood north of downtown.
The backup forced commuters, students and interstate truckers to sit for hours in baking sunshine. Officials at Sacramento International Airport said they were getting reports that numerous passengers were missing their flights because the main freeway system between San Francisco and the Nevada border was all but frozen.
"Until we can take the suspect into custody, our concern is the overwhelming safety of the public," West Sacramento police spokesman Sgt. Nathan Steele said. "We understand it's an inconvenience."
The gunman seemed to disappear around noon after abandoning his most recently hijacked vehicle, a brown truck. Around 1 p.m., police detained a man a witness believed was sitting in the brown truck after it was stolen. But by late afternoon, officers had released the man, saying the witness may have been mistaken.
The incident began around 6 a.m. when officers responded to reports of shots being fired near the trucking business, a report that was quickly followed by a carjacking. According to CBS station KOVR Sacramento, employees of B&R Head and Block Repair arrived at work and interrupted a burglary in process. Shots were fired, but no one was hit. One of the suspects reportedly carjacked a white pickup truck at gunpoint.
"Yes, he ran up to me with his gun and took my truck at gunpoint," Steve Welch, the first carjacking victim, told KOVR. "All of a sudden the guy runs around the corner and he's got a backpack in one hand and a revolver in the other. And he ran right up to me and said 'Get out, get out!' Truthfully, I couldn't move fast enough. I'm glad he didn't shot me."
Officers spotted the stolen a white pickup truck and began pursuing it, with the driver firing shots at officers. Other officers stayed until 2:40 p.m. local time at the original crime scene because it was believed that there was a possibility that another suspect was hiding in the trucking business, KOVR said.
The white vehicle crashed in the center median of the Yolo Causeway, a three-mile-long elevated section of the interstate that runs over the flood basin. The road remained closed, effectively shutting the main freeway corridor east of the San Francisco Bay area.
As officers searched the flood basin, they received reports of another carjacking in West Sacramento, near the California Highway Patrol academy. Police believe the suspect had fled the basin, hot-wired a tractor and drove it to the scene of the second carjacking.
The victim of the second carjacking told KOVR that he was bird watching along the Sacramento River when a man, who drove up in a John Deer tractor, assaulted him by hitting him on the head and stole his truck. He was taken to the hospital.
Police then began searching for the victim's brown Ford F-150 pickup truck and said the suspect of the carjacking may be the same person they were seeking. They later located the Ford truck in a north Sacramento neighborhood, which they were closing off and searching.
As the search stretched into the early afternoon, commuters began to worry that people leaving town for the weekend would make the evening commute even worse than the morning's.
Casey Cane was among those caught in the traffic jam. He had left the Bay area for a weekend of skiing around Lake Tahoe but hit the snarl at 7 a.m. and sat in it for more than an hour before he was able to backtrack and take side roads. He eventually made it back to I-80 beyond the lane closures.
Cane had taken the day off work and was frustrated about missing time on the slopes, but he didn't fault law enforcement for the extensive freeway shutdown.
"If there's people running around with guns, what can you do?" he said in an email to The Associated Press. "It would pretty negligent on their part if these people hurt more people."
Commuter Charles Mueller was heading west on the freeway on his way to work just as police pulled up to the crashed stolen vehicle. "I got all spun up," he said, recalling the squads of officers pulling alongside him and taking aim at the vehicle with assault-style weapons.
Mueller said he was able to drive through the scene before the freeway was shut down. Having lived in Los Angeles, Mueller said he has come to see these types of large-scale road closures as a necessary evil.
"I grew up in Southern California, if you know what I mean," he said. "I figured once there's police activity, there's no escaping."
Stalled commuters were directed to stay inside and lock their doors until officers could turn them around.
The California Highway Patrol launched all its emergency signs in the region, trying to alert drivers to the freeway closure and direct traffic to alternative routes, although even those were clogged to the point of being nearly impassable.
"We've pulled officers from the entire region to get them turned around," CHP spokesman Adrian Quintero said. "But we also have to be patient and slow. We don't want more collisions."
Many commuters tried to use Interstate 5 to get around the traffic jam, creating a backup on the main freeway connecting California and Oregon. It also jammed up traffic leading to Sacramento International Airport, which is just off I-5 north of the capital.
Airport spokeswoman Karen Doron said the airport was using social media to warn passengers about the delays, but she knew of at least a dozen who already had missed their flights.
In addition to Special Weapons and Tactics squads, authorities were using K-9 units and a helicopter to try to locate the gunman.
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