Traffic nightmare during spill A hectic morning in Mount Airy after truck leaks chemical

August 28, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

While rescue workers cleared hazardous material from Mount Airy's major thoroughfare Wednesday, the town had its own traffic nightmare and minor business crisis.

Phenol resin, a toxic chemical, had spilled from a tractor-trailer onto Route 27 south of Interstate 70 at Four Corners Exxon. About 75 rescue workers and state police responded. The cleanup closed the highway and some businesses for as long as six hours.

"It was a humming morning, with a lot of traffic on town streets, and people wondering why they were being evacuated," said Mayor Gerald R. Johnson.

The trucker, en route to Jessup from West Virginia, pulled off the interstate to report the incident. Within minutes, state police closed Route 27 in both directions and initiated an evacuation of businesses and homes. A northerly breeze increased the need for caution.

"We had no idea what the material was until the driver was interviewed and crews had gone onto the truck," said Tfc. George Prager, the first officer on the scene.

When dealing with an unknown chemical, evacuation is a standard practice, police said. Police asked customers and merchants to vacate all the stores in Peacock Center at Ridgeville Boulevard about a half-mile from the spill.

"The whole shopping center cleared out," said Keith Sampson, grocery manager at Super Fresh. "We all understood why, but it shut us down for 3 1/2 hours on a day when we advertise heavily."

In addition to Route 27, a major north-south thoroughfare that cuts through the town, police closed all but one ramp at I-70. The closings often forced motorists onto circuitous detours through narrow town streets or onto winding back roads so they could re-enter the highway at a safe distance from the spill.

"Everybody hated us yesterday," Prager said. "They couldn't go south on 27. For people who only know one way to work and one way home, it was difficult."

The unfamiliar routes were made more difficult by a lack of troopers and directional signs. About 15 state troopers responded to the emergency, but most were needed in the immediate area.

Troopers closed the highway in both directions from Penn Shop Road to Ridgeville Boulevard. Officers directed traffic at major // intersections, but did not have the staff to spread out into the countryside. State highway workers set up roadblocks, but many were ill-equipped to answer questions posed by lost motorists.

"We tried to keep traffic moving, but people were constantly stopping to ask for directions," said Prager, who directed traffic at Ridgeville Boulevard and Route 27 for several hours. "Many just circled around the block and tried to come back a different way, but there was no way to go south on 27."

Drivers who stayed on the highway after Ridgeville Boulevard were forced onto the westbound interstate. The next exit at Route 75 was more than five miles away and under construction.

"If we had had the manpower, we would have set up crossovers on I-70," said Prager.

From Route 75, the trip back to town was along Route 144 east. Hapless drivers were often directed into subdivisions with no outlets.

But Johnson remains confident the town is prepared for emergencies.

"The spill was handled professionally and everything went well," Johnson said. "The only complaints we got were about traffic, and any time people are inconvenienced they will complain."

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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