Oil truck strikes snowbank, dumps heating fuel in Salem

By Jill Harmacinski


SALEM -- Hundreds of gallons of combustible heating oil spilled into the Witchcraft Heights neighborhood and leaked into the North River after an oil truck struck a frozen snowbank yesterday morning.

Firefighters were unsure of an exact figure, but believe a "substantial" amount of home heating oil -- possibly as much as 1,200 gallons -- gushed from a ruptured valve under a Viking Oil truck after the 9:45 a.m. accident.

The first patrolman to respond described a scene where oil was leaking from the truck with the same force as water coming out of a fire hose.

"We heard this bang," said Laurie Bertone of 14 Crescent Drive. "We came outside and it was just gushing out of the bottom of the truck."

The impact of the crash caused a valve under the 2-ton truck to snap, sending oil into the intersection of Summit Street and Crescent Drive and prompting a massive clean-up effort. Large, slick pools of heating fuel quickly collected in the street and fumes backed up in nearby homes. No one had to be evacuated, although the entire intersection was closed for the day.

The accident occurred when the oil truck driver hit a snowbank at the intersection left by city plow crews. The three-foot snowbank sits about four feet away from a curb and neighbors said they had complained it would cause an accident someday.

Firefighters worked hard to contain the spill as it ran into storm drains connected to the North River and the nearby ocean, although yesterday the ultimate impact on the environment was still unknown.

The firefighters were assisted by the Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Protection and private clean-up crews hired by the oil company.

Large booms, devices used to contain oil spills, were stretched across a section of the North River near Canal Street to collect oil coming out of storm drains. Also, trucks with special machines attached were brought in to "vacuum" away the oil from the surface of the river, said Salem Fire Capt. Gerry Giunta, a member of the state's hazardous materials team.

The length and cost of the cleanup effort was unclear yesterday. Removing oil from the North River could take several days.

"I can't estimate, but I can tell you it's expensive," said firefighter Peter Schaeublin, the department's public information officer.

Giunta agreed, noting the bulk of the cleanup cost would fall to Viking Oil.

"Whoever commits the oil spill is usually responsible for paying for the cleanup," he said.

The oil truck driver, Mike Masterson, 54, of East Boston, was not injured in the accident. Viking Oil owner Joseph Pedoto said Masterson has worked for the Winthrop-based oil company for about a year.

Police said Masterson was not facing any criminal charges after yesterday's accident. A state police truck team was called in to examine the truck for possible equipment and safety violations, however, Salem police Lt. Conrad Prosniewski said.

In sharp contrast to the firefighter's estimate, Pedoto yesterday said just 75 gallons leaked from the oil truck, which at full capacity can carry 2,500 gallons of oil.

"Spills often look much worse than they really are," Pedoto said.

Pedoto praised firefighters for finding the ruptured valve under the truck and shutting it down as soon as possible. That move, he said, prevented more oil from leaking into the street and saved what was left in the truck. Masterson made three stops to unload heating oil before the crash occurred yesterday morning, Pedoto said.

"It was a simple, outright accident," Pedoto said. "Thank God no one was hurt."