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LNG truck mishap spawns a rush-hour headache

An overturned tanker truck carrying liquid methane shut down one of the state's busiest interchanges yesterday morning, trapping many motorists in frustrating gridlock north of Boston while other quick-thinking commuters reached the city through alternate routes.

State police said truck driver Richard Bailey, 55, of Mechanicsville, N.Y., was going too fast as he rounded the ramp from I-93 north to 128/95 south in Reading at around 1:50 a.m.

There was no leakage of liquefied natural gas from the overturned truck, but the cleanup and safety needs after the accident intermittently closed the cloverleaf joining the highways just as the morning rush hour commute was at its height. Nearby roads suffered the worst effects, with town officials in Woburn, Stoneham, Wakefield, and Reading still dealing with traffic jams by mid-morning. "Never, never had anything like this," said Stoneham Police Sergeant David Stefanelli.

Route 1 was said to be packed for 10 miles from Route 128 to the Tobin Bridge, according to SmarTraveler, which monitors Boston roads. The normally placid Lynn Fells Parkway was a river of cars. Some motorists trying to be smart got stuck. Shortcuts throughout the northern suburbs, including routes 114, 62, 28, 99, and 16, became bumper-to-bumper nightmares.

"I decided to take Route 114 from Salem, Mass., over to 495 and south to Billerica," wrote Jeanne Garvin in an e-mail . "This trip usually takes 50 minutes. This morning it was close to two hours as many others decided to do the same thing . . ."

Other commuters who skirted the closure and then got back on the uncluttered interstate said they broke their personal trip records. "I had one of my fastest drive times to Cambridge in about a year," David Lewis of Salem, N.H., said via e-mail.

The traffic tie-up even prompted Woburn public schools to cancel classes yesterday over concerns that students would be stuck waiting for delayed buses.

"I heard the traffic conditions were pretty bad and our immediate concern was for the health and safety of our students," said Woburn's school superintendent, Carl Batchelder. Accounts varied yesterday on whether the accident, involving the liquid form of a highly combustible gas, could have caused a disaster around the interchange.Reading Fire Captain Paul Guarino, one of the first on the scene, said the tanker truck, registered to Kip Sheldon Trucking Corp. out of Rensselaer, N.Y., carried enough volatile fuel -- 36,000 pounds -- to make it "potentially a giant bomb. . . . An explosion would devastate a half-mile in all directions."

Firefighters like Guarino who arrived shortly after the early-morning accident stood more than 100 yards away, using binoculars and night-vision cameras to make sure no methane was leaking before they moved in. But, according to hazardous materials specialists on hand as six wreckers helped to right the tanker before the cargo was transferred to another vehicle, there was little chance of an explosion. Because the tank did not leak, the contents, liquefied under pressure, could not vaporize and remained stable.

State Police spokesman Scott Schubert said the truck rolled onto its left side at the base of the turn, blocking two lanes of traffic.

Bailey, the truck driver, was slightly injured and faced a speeding citation. He declined to comment on the crash at the scene. Troopers said he could face additional charges.

No one could be reached for comment yesterday at Kip Sheldon, which employs only four drivers, according to federal transportation records.

Governor Mitt Romney and MassHighway officials said they plan to seek about $50,000 in cleanup costs from the trucking firm's insurance company. In addition, the state will try to recover overtime expenses for police and fire.

"We are not fully recognizing the cost to our economy and to our citizens," Romney said during an East Cambridge appearance yesterday. "Think of all the airplanes missed, the meetings missed, the businesses that were not able to open . . . I think we have to have more severe penalties than just a speeding ticket."

Romney also called for legislation that would make it easier for local towns and the state to recoup costs from future accidents involving hazardous cargo. Romney filed similar legislation after the April 27 oil spill in Buzzards Bay, but that bill addressed only maritime accidents.

An estimated 400,000 vehicles travel the I-93/I-95 interchange daily, making it the state's busiest, highway officials said. It is also considered one of the more dangerous. The most recent state highway figures show that from 1997 to 1999, there were 678 accidents at the interchange. Last year, Massachusetts Highway Commissioner John Cogliano tabled a $100 million project that explored reconfiguring the interchange after local residents protested the potential taking of nearby homes. A task force on the redesign continues to meet.

Officials with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles said Bailey got his commercial driver's license in 1991. He was cited for a seat belt violation last year. In a 1996 accident, he was found at fault for backing a truck into a car. No one was injured.

Trucks belonging to Kip Sheldon Trucking have been taken off the road three times in the past three years after a total of 10 spot inspections. In the first incident in September 2000, inspectors found a Sheldon truck's brakes out of adjustment. The same problem was found on another Sheldon truck in October 2002. In December 2002, inspectors found a brake hose that was chafed and damaged. It could not be determined whether the truck involved in yesterday's accident was one of the three cited in those safety inspections.As normalcy resumed yesterday, it was a rare commuter left smiling by the mishap. One Andover driver who got word of the closure early found her 1 1/2-hour commute to Natick slashed to 25 minutes. "Can we shut down the highway every day?" she asked.

Globe correspondent Brendan McCarthy and Megan Tench of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mac Daniel can be reached at mdaniel@globe.com.

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