Published November 03. 2007 4:00AM Updated December 15. 2009 2:30PM
East Lyme — Phyllis Martino saw it coming.
The tanker truck in front of her had been swerving in and out of lanes and riding the bumper of a minivan. Martino, driving Interstate 95 north on her way to a job interview at Foxwoods Resort Casino, hung back in her Kia Optima.
Martino's decision to keep her distance from the tanker might have saved her life. At about 10:20 a.m. Friday, the tanker hit a guardrail, causing a six-vehicle accident that left three people dead, closed the highway for hours and sent thousands of gallons of diesel fuel into a nearby brook.
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Martino said she saw a tractor-trailer pass the tanker truck on the right. The two trucks had been taking turns passing each other.
Suddenly, Martino saw the tanker truck, about 100 feet ahead of her and still in the left lane, start to drift. It ran onto the left-hand shoulder and hit a guardrail, kicking up dirt and dust, she said.
Martino said she thought the driver tried to recover but, in overcorrecting, he lost control.
Through a cloudburst of dirt and debris — mud flaps, metal and lights — Martino saw the tanker truck bounce and swerve. She saw the cab twist off the tanker before both parts of the truck crashed through the center median and into southbound traffic.
A tractor-trailer driving south went “flying on top of everywhere,” Martino said. The body of that truck wound up on an embankment, part of its side peeled open, while its cab broke off and traveled another 30 yards south.
The cab slammed into the right-hand guardrail. Its back end wound up in the air, the right rear wheels atop the hood of a gray sedan wedged underneath.
In the aftermath, when everything had stopped, Martino saw the tractor-trailer driver yelling, “Get me out of here!” A dog popped up from behind the console of the cab, she said, and the driver of the gray sedan regained consciousness.
The driver of the tanker truck was killed.
As diesel fuel gushed from a hole punctured in the side of the tanker, Martino, fearing an explosion, didn't cross the highway. She said she called to the dog, a pit bull later identified as Tiny, to jump out and come down. The dog stayed put.
Martino hollered at the driver of the car, which she said was smoking, to get out. He managed to open the driver's side door and escape. His face was slightly bloodied. People at the scene helped the driver of the tractor-trailer out of his cab.
“I knew something bad was gonna happen,” Martino said. “I thought he was carrying gas. ... I thought, 'Oh my God, it's gonna explode and I'm gonna be right in it.' So I was just hitting my brakes.”
Three people were pronounced dead and three others were injured and sent to local hospitals as a result of the accident, said Lt. J. Paul Vance, spokesman for the Connecticut State Police. He said police would not release the identities of the dead until today, after their families could be informed.
The Connecticut State Police Truck Squad, Accident Reconstruction Squad and Major Crime Squad are investigating the crash. Fire departments and hazmat teams from as far away as Willington, Norwich and the Naval Submarine Base in Groton responded to the scene, and portable toilets were trucked in from Lyme. Public works departments from several towns arrived with the sand necessary to contain the diesel spill.
Vance said the driver of the tanker, which was traveling northbound, lost control, crossed the center median and entered ongoing traffic in the southbound lane, striking a tractor-trailer and four cars.
The state police are asking anyone who observed the crash to call Troop E at (860) 848-6500.
Both sides of I-95 were closed for most of the day, clogging secondary roads in East Lyme and Waterford and lengthening the ride home for commuters.
One northbound lane opened Friday night. At 10 p.m., a southbound bypass around the accident site was delaying traffic for only about five minutes. The highway was expected to be partially open today as well, as environmental mitigation continues.
For much of the day, fire crews with pumper trucks took turns traveling back and forth to Flanders Road to collect water from the nearest fire hydrant, pouring hundreds of gallons of water into portable pools and filling their tanks with water in case of a fire.
East Lyme First Selectman Beth Hogan said many of the same emergency workers who were on the scene of Friday's accident were scheduled to be at an emergency management meeting in East Lyme at 11 a.m. to discuss strategies in light of today's weather forecast, which includes rain and high winds of 35 to 45 mph with gusts up to 55 mph.
The meeting was canceled and emergency workers were diverted to the crash site.
Northeast Carriers LLC, the owner of the tanker, was incorporated in 2004, according to filings with the secretary of the state. Since then, the Danielson company has apparently maintained a good safety record, according to state officials and federal filings.
Several attempts to reach the company's president, David A. Scott, who lives in Pomfret Center, were unsuccessful.
The company was given a rating of “satisfactory” as recently as July by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, according to agency records and its division administrator for Connecticut, Jeff Cimahosky. That is the highest of the agency's three safety ratings.
Federal and state records for the last three years show the company's vehicles were involved in only three accidents, with no fatalities, said William Seymour, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles. One of those accidents, a four-car crash in Rhode Island in 2005, did cause injuries, Seymour said, though the extent of the injuries and the parties at fault could not be determined Friday.
“The company has a very good safety rating,” Seymour said, adding that the state had inspected Northeast Carriers vehicles 16 times since 2004 and found “nothing that makes them stand out as a bad carrier.”
Low levels of wear-and-tear and minor equipment irregularities are a fact of life in major trucking operations, Seymour said.
Federal filings show the company's vehicles were inspected 22 times over the past 24 months, while receiving citations only five times. That is a violation average of 22.7 percent, the federal agency records show, slightly below the national average of 23.1 percent.
None of its drivers were cited for violations over the past two years, according to the same records.
The one blemish apparent on Northeast Carriers' record is the revocation of the company's operating authority status by the Motor Carrier Safety Administration in May 2006. But the authority was reinstated just seven days later, suggesting the revocation was for a relatively routine and benign violation, said Cimahosky, the agency's chief official in Connecticut. Such revocations can be triggered by as little as late-filed paperwork, he said.
Northeast Carriers owns nine tractors, 11 trailers and eight tanker trucks, according to Seymour and federal filings.
The company employs 14 drivers, according to the federal filings, and has logged more than 500,000 miles so far this year. The company has transported liquids, gases and pool water, the agency records show.
Vincent Gagliardi of Deep River was several hundred yards behind the northbound tanker truck and a few cars behind Martino, fiddling with the radio in his Honda Civic when he saw what he described as a flash of metal.
Drivers everywhere slammed on their brakes, said Gagliardi, who pulled off the highway and ran to the southbound side, rushing through debris to the cars and trucks strewn around the roadway.
“I walked right down the line and I checked everybody, and everybody was dead,” he said.
Gagliardi arrived at the tractor-trailer, peered through a small hole torn open in the driver's side of the cab, and saw Tiny.
“I went to the passenger side and got him out,” Gagliardi said of the dog. “I wasn't sure if it was diesel fuel or home fuel. I couldn't see this guy get burned.”
Gagliardi walked the northbound entrance ramp and surrounding area with Tiny on a leash for the next couple of hours. The dog appeared unscathed and upbeat, wagging his tail and greeting strangers while searching for James Clark, his owner.
Around 12:30 p.m., Gagliardi received word that Clark had survived. He was in the hospital and wanted to see his dog.
When Gagliardi brought Tiny to the emergency room at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, he said, hospital workers weren't willing to let him in to the emergency room with the pit bull. But when he told them whose dog it was, they wheeled Clark into a part of the emergency room on a gurney so that he could be reunited with his dog.
Gagliardi said Clark thanked him profusely for caring for his dog, and hospital staff allowed Clock to keep Tiny with him until a friend from Long Island could come to pick him up.
Clark was ultimately treated and released Friday afternoon, a hospital spokesman said.
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Day Staff Writer Ted Mann contributed to this report.