Tanker spill snarls I-97 most of day Traffic tied up

crews prevent gas from polluting river

'This is as big as it gets'

8,300 gallons of fuel leak from vehicle onto commuter artery

January 05, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel and TaNoah V. Sterling | Andrea F. Siegel and TaNoah V. Sterling,SUN STAFF

Thousands of rush-hour motorists stewed in miles of backed-up traffic yesterday after a gasoline tanker overturned on Interstate 97 and closed the major route between Baltimore and Annapolis for most of the day.

The 6:15 a.m. accident in Millersville turned the morning commute into an impromptu road rally as many frustrated drivers negotiated back roads to reach work. Others pulled out laptops and cellular phones, turning their idling cars into offices.

Two of three northbound lanes were reopened shortly after 1 p.m. All southbound lanes remained closed until 5:15 p.m., when one lane was reopened, State Highway Administration officials said.

Last night's rush hour was not much better than the morning.

"It took me about 45 minutes longer than usual," Carol Williams, a service associate for the United Way office, said of her 30-minute commute from her Millersville office to her Arnold home. "On Benfield Road, maybe I got up to 10 mph."

SHA crews were quick to respond to the accident, setting up electronic signs at major access points, such as Interstate 895 and Route 32, to warn the 84,000 motorists who use the road each day. But it was too late for thousands.

Anne Young heard about the accident on her car radio at 8:40 a.m. By then she had been stalled in traffic by her Severna Park house for more than 15 minutes, wondering why she could not get onto I-97 for her trip to her weekly bowling league in Crofton.

"It took 50 minutes for a 15-minute drive," she said. "You just sort of sat there."

The problem spread, and soon many roads in north and central Anne Arundel were snarled.

"Route 2 was just solid cars. It was backed up every which way," said Joan Heid, an office manager for Bay Media in Arnold.

James Pickens of Glen Burnie thought leaving 90 minutes early gave him plenty of time for the 15-minute drive down Ritchie Highway to his leadership course at Anne Arundel Community College. He just made it. "Some of my classmates got there as much as 20 minutes late," he said.

Public school students were slow to arrive, but many made it before their teachers, a school spokeswoman said.

The ruptured tanker dumped more than 8,300 gallons of fuel across I-97, making it one of the largest gasoline spills in the state in recent years.

"This is as big as it gets on the highway," said Alan J. Williams, chief of the Maryland Department of the Environment emergency response division.

A quick response enabled state and commercial crews to prevent the gasoline from polluting Severn Run, a trout stream that forms the headwaters of the Severn River.

State police officers, highway and natural resources workers and people from the county Fire Department and the U.S. Coast Guard spent most of the day on the scene.

Crews used booms, barriers, vacuum trucks and seven truckloads of sand to block, siphon and absorb gasoline. Workers dug up tons of contaminated dirt from the median and along the southbound shoulder.

"We dispatched the bulk of our resources," said Craig Fadem, vice president of A&A Environmental Services, the Linthicum Heights firm hired by the tanker owner. About 35 of the company's 50 workers were there.

MDE estimated the cleanup will cost $200,000.

The accident occurred south of the Benfield Boulevard exit of I-97 when an unidentified red pickup truck in a southbound lane cut off a blue Honda driven by Michael J. McCarthy of Millersville, state police said.

Mr. McCarthy lost control of the car and swung onto the right shoulder. The car veered back into the center lane where it collided with the truck belonging to Carroll Independent Fuel Co. of Baltimore, police said.

The truck overturned on the driver's side and slid a few yards across all three southbound lanes. Officials said fuel and fumes poured from five punctures in the tanker.

Police have not charged anyone and they are looking for the driver of the red pickup, said police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley.

Neither Mr. McCarthy nor truck driver Clarence H. Ford Jr., of Parkton, was hospitalized, police said.

State police are asking witnesses, especially anyone who saw the red pickup, to call the Glen Burnie barracks at 761-5130.

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