A Commuters Nightmare

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A gasoline tanker truck accident, causing an explosion and a stream of fire, resulted in a commuter nightmare.

Submitted: June 18, 2008

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Submitted: June 18, 2008

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On a crisp cold Monday night, in December of 1985 at 10:24 p.m., just as the Peabody Engine One crew were “making up their hoses” from a car fire in the woods behind the Higgins Middle School, a massive explosion, accompanied by a huge fire ball, rocked the area and lit up the night sky to the West.
“We heard the explosion and saw a fireball in the sky,” said Deputy Paul Lynch, then a lieutenant assigned to Engine One, “I called fire alarm, Bart Madruga was the fire alarm operator that night, and told him to ‘strike a box’ for a fire somewhere west of the Higgins middle school.”
Engine One and its crew quickly responded to the area of Route 128, and upon entering the southbound lane from the Lowell Street exit, discovered that a gasoline tanker, weighing approximately 71,000 lbs and traveling in the northbound lane of Route 128, was completely engulfed in flames.
The location of the accident was near, what is today, the Forest Street bridge overpass that spans Route 128, near Centennial Drive. The area had long been notorious for its many accidents.
“The on and off ramps to the highway, because of their design, left little time to pull onto the highway and accelerated to the proper speeds of the oncoming traffic. The traffic lights, one of the only ones on Route 128, caused confusing for people not familiar with the area and the weather always played a role in the frequencies of the accidents. When it rained, combined with the grade of the highway, the road became treacherous,” recalled retired Peabody police captain Ed Quinn, “We have had many, many accident in that area. Every time it rained we knew we would be sending an ambulance up there.”
The now raging inferno was being fanned by 40-mile-an-hour northeast winds producing 50-foot flames. The tanker, loaded with 11,000 gallons of gasoline, had blown a tire, struck a concrete Jersey barrier and rolled over. The impact pierced the tanker, which ignited the gasoline and caused the explosion. The blast sent bystanders running from a flowing stream of burning gasoline, which cascaded in burning flows down the highway. The operator of Engine One, John Gahagan, made a quick u-turn and exited the highway via an old ramp, on Summit Street, which had been blocked off.“There were people running from their cars, down the street, some holding babies wrapped in blankets,” Gahagan remembers.
Ed Quinn, who was Peabody police lieutenant and watch commander at the time, heard the call from a cruiser patrolling the area and arrived on the scene soon after. Quinn recalls putting his cruiser in reverse to escape the rolling flames.
“I made the turn onto Route 128 where I got a better view of the tanker. I saw that it was fully engulfed in flames. Then I saw the gasoline on fire rolling down the highway, which had a steep grade, and I immediately threw the cruiser in reverse and parked it down at the on ramp to the highway where I could start to detour the traffic.”
The tanker had overturned less than 100 feet from a single family home and was in close proximity to other homes and the Pilgrim nursing home. Although it was never in grave danger and the patients were not evacuated, people living nearby were awakened by the explosion and some actually fell out of bed. One man was quoted in the Peabody Times saying, “I was lying in bed when I heard the explosion. I looked out the window and Route 128 was one long skid mark of flames.”
Deputy Chief Frank Connors, who was in charge at the scene that night, recalled that it was fortunate that the accident didn’t occur during the morning of afternoon rush hour traffic. Even though there were no fatalities, and injuries were confined only to the 39-year-old driver, Thomas Catalano, who was found later on Lowell Street suffering from fractured ribs, and a head injury, was taken to J. B. Thomas hospital. While human injury was miraculously low, the damage to the highway was quite significant.
Connors remembers that, “Since there were no life hazards they put all the efforts into extinguishing the flames and to lessen the environmental impact by setting up dikes and makeshift barriers.”
These dikes and barriers were set up to stop the flow of the fuel from entering Proctor’s brook and eventually into Salem harbor, via the North River.
The initial explosion consumed much of the fuel, but the rest of the fuel burned so intense that the heat from the inferno melted the roadway, closing the highway for three days putting a chokehold on one of the North Shore’s busiest roadways, and causing a commuter nightmare of epic proportions. Not only was Route 128 a commuter’s route, but, the next exit on the highway was the North Shore Shopping Center exit and this was three weeks before Christmas. Traffic was diverted along Routes 114, down Route 1, and funneled back on to Route 128. Cars were bumper to bumper for miles on the major and secondary roads and state police advised commuters to carpool, take the trains or just stay home.
The Peabody fire department received help from the fire departments of Lynnfield, North Reading, Middleton, Danvers, Beverly, Salem, Lynn, Marblehead, but it wasn’t until the arrival of the Massachusetts Port Authority fire department with a crash truck that was normally used to extinguish airplane fires were the flames finally extinguished.
 The Mass Port truck used firefighting foam, because of the chemical nature of gasoline. Gasoline is lighter than water and will float on top of it; the foam is used to extinguish the fires by blanketing the flammable liquid and smothering it. The fire was under control within an hour, but the cleanup would take much longer.
The road was torn up, and the soil underneath was aerated and left out to evaporate the volatile fuel. 8,400 cubic feet of contaminated soil was hauled away to a Rhode Island facility owned by the clean up company, Jet Line, and then repaved. The heat from the fire and the scope of the fire, due to the running burning liquid caused a large swath to be damaged to the highway of approximately 1 ½ square miles. The hole was about seven-feet deep and 350-feet wide on both sides of the highway.
By 3:15 a.m. on Thursday after working day and night for days in the freezing December weather, worker completed the repaving and traffic was opened up soon after, ending the four-day traffic nightmare.
The cause of the accident was never confirmed, but eyewitness reports of the truck’s speed prior to the accident and marks on the road suggested the driver’s story of a flat tire was the best explanation. The owner of the tanker containing the 11,000 gallons of BP gasoline, Brewer Petroleum of Winthrop, was insured by the Triton Insurance Agency and was ultimately responsible for the cost of the cleanup, which ended up being over $500,000.
The area of Route 128 in Peabody is still the site of car accidents, although not the severity and frequency of the days when you could enter Route 128 from Summit and Forest Street. Today the road is much wider and with the new interchanges for Route 95 and Centennial Park, although swollen with traffic some days, it truly makes for a much safer ride and commute. Although construction work had already stated and plans were in the works to make the highway safer, this accident surely seal the fate this section of Route 128.


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