THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Accidents paralyze I-95 north of Boston in morning, evening

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By Milton J. Valencia and Michaela Stanelun
Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent / July 7, 2009
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NEWBURYPORT - Like bookends to a nightmarish story, two accidents on Interstate 95 shut down portions of the highway north of Boston during the morning and evening commutes, forcing drivers to wait for hours in a virtual parking lot on one of the hottest days of the summer.

“There were no warning signs,’’ said Byfield resident Kathy Murray of the four-vehicle accident in Newburyport yesterday morning that shut down both sides of the interstate for most of the day. She waited two hours to travel one exit to pick up her 17-year-old son. “I can’t get there . . . and it’s right there,’’ she said, gesturing at her exit.

That accident, which created the longest delay, occurred just south of the I-95 bridge over the Merrimack River, when a tanker truck overturned and spilled an estimated 9,000 gallons of gasoline. The accident and spill prompted officials to close both sides of the highway, evacuate a nearby neighborhood, and use a boom to contain any gasoline that ended up into the river via storm drains. Officials said they do not know how much fuel got into the river.

“I think the focus right now is just containing it,’’ said Joe Ferson, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The accident involved three cars in addition to the tanker, and the closure backed up traffic for miles in both directions. The southbound side of the highway was not reopened until 3:30 p.m., while two northbound lanes were reopened shortly before 5 p.m.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the highway was closed again for close to two hours after power lines fell onto a truck traveling in the area of Peabody around 4:30 p.m., near the intersection of Route 1.

Police reported no critical injuries, but the disruptions caused the main highway to come to a standstill from morning to evening. Drivers, some needing to travel only a few miles, grew annoyed in their cars, weathering yesterday’s warm temperatures with their windows down or their air conditions blasting.

“It’s been such a long time where we had a day like this, that affected both the day and evening commute,’’ said Sergeant Michael Popovics of the State Police. “It’s frustrating for drivers, but we want to get out there and get everyone moving as quickly as possible.’’

Jack Foley of Hampton, N.H., got caught in the Newburyport traffic both on his way to a round of golf in nearby Rowley in the morning, and then again in the afternoon on his way home. “I don’t know why it takes six hours to move a truck and clear an accident,’’ he said. “This is crazy to be this long.’’

The tanker accident also caused a brief scare for residents of Laurel Road, parallel to the highway. There was a threat of the gasoline seeping into their back yards and the odor was nauseating. That and the concern that work to clear up the accident might cause a spark that would ignite the gasoline forced the evacuation of 12 homes. Residents were not allowed to return until about 4 p.m.

“It was scary . . . for a quiet neighborhood to hear you had to be evacuated,’’ said Rosemary Deciel, who heard a frightening boom when the accident occurred. “We just didn’t know what it was.’’

Dan McCarthy, his wife, and three of their children waited while environmental protection crews checked the homes for gasoline vapors. “You could smell it when the wind shifted, and it was pretty strong,’’ he said.

Newburyport and Amesbury immediately closed drinking water wells near the site, though there was no indication they were contaminated.

At one point during the day, piles of loose sand and sand bags lined the northbound lanes in either direction of the Ferry Road overpass.

On the Merrimack, a 25-foot US Coast Guard boat worked with a boom to contain the spill. State and federal regulators said they will monitor the river for high levels of gasoline and test nearby soil for contaminants.

State Police said the cause of the Newburyport accident is under investigation. Initial reports yesterday said the driver of one of the four vehicles was driving erratically.

The tanker jackknifed during the accident, its tank rupturing when the truck tipped onto its side. Two people were seriously hurt, and at least eight more had minor injuries.

The Peabody accident was apparently caused when a truck ran into power lines that were drooping over the highway after something happened to one of the poles holding them up, police said. The truck pulled other power lines down and triggered a fire in a nearby transformer.

The lines are owned by the Peabody Municipal Light Plant, and spokeswoman Judy Meserve said the company had to replace three poles.

Andrew Ryan of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.