SAUGUS – A gasoline tanker truck crashed and exploded in a fireball just north of Boston early Saturday, triggering smaller explosions, sending fire streaming down a nearby brook and killing the truck driver, state police said.
Gasoline from the tanker spilled onto Route 1 in Saugus, flowed into a drainage ditch and ignited, carrying flames down a brook that runs near the highway. The floating fire ignited a home and two greenhouse buildings, which were still smoking several hours after the 2:30 a.m. crash on the north side of the highway.
“The whole brook was in flames,” said Karen Staskawicz, whose home burned in the fire.
Staskawicz heard a loud crash and several minutes later was warned to get out of her house as the flaming gas ran behind her house and set her porch on fire. About two hours later, her entire house went up in flames. Staskawicz suspects that gas seeped into the basement and fueled the larger fire.
Later Saturday morning, she walked through her charred living room, trying to salvage sentimental photos and figure out what was next for herself, a roommate and her 19-year-old son.
“I don’t know where we’re staying, to be honest,” said Staskawicz, 44. She added, “We have a lot of friends.”
The truck driver, 59-year-old Neal Michaud, of Manchester, N.H., was killed, state police spokesman David Procopio said. The truck belongs to PJ Murphy Transportation Inc. of Methuen. A call for comment to the company wasn’t immediately returned.
Four other motorists were hurt trying to avoid the crash and gushing fuel, including one, Kevin Fitzgerald, 60, of South Hamilton, who was taken to a Boston hospital with severe burn injuries, Procopio said. The other three suffered less severe injuries.
Police were investigating what caused the tanker to slam into a median and roll over.
About 120 people were evacuated from a neighborhood, but they were allowed to return to their homes several hours after the crash, Procopio said. The fires were out three hours after the accident.
Sandra Dion, who lives right off the highway, was awakened by the crash and soon after saw “a huge mushroom cloud of fire and smoke” in the sky over the road. Smaller, sporadic blasts followed as flames began riding down the brook, and there was another massive explosion in a nearby culvert that set off car alarms.
“The gas came down the gully, and everything just blew up,” said Dion, 42.
Embers began falling, prompting a neighbor with a baby to leave the house, Dion said. Dion turned on the lawn sprinkler, knowing it might not do much good.
“It’s one of those things, you just can’t believe it,” she said.
Police were checking a bridge over the highway for possible structural damage, Procopio said. Officials were also checking gas lines after an underground line to a nearby fast-food restaurant apparently ruptured from the explosion, he said.
As of late afternoon, two lanes had reopened on each side of the highway in Saugus, about 10 miles north of downtown Boston. The far left lanes on both the northbound and southbound sides were expected to remain closed well into Sunday for road and guardrail repairs.