Massachusetts Hazmat Truck Crashes En Route to 'Prank'

Updated: 08-08-2006 11:17:23 AM

Telegram & Gazette

GARDNER -- A man who emptied a 5-gallon container of chemicals onto another man's Chestnut Street yard yesterday will face criminal charges, and may be ordered to pay restitution for the act, which closed a residential street and tied up emergency crews all day, police said.

The incident may have stemmed from a past business grievance between the homeowner and the chemical-wielding visitor, according to police.

The man, whose name was not released, told police he dumped a kerosene-based herbicide on the yard in an attempt to damage the resident's garden. Police Lt. Gerald Poirier said a formal analysis of the chemical could take weeks to complete.

The owner of the yard is Joseph A. Sawicki, a retiree who served on the City Council from 1972 to 1976. He did not return calls seeking comment on the case yesterday.

Around 9:30 a.m. a Chestnut Street resident noticed someone dumping a chemical onto his neighbor's yard at 107 Chestnut St., Lt. Poirier said. The resident called out to the visitor, who apparently panicked, emptied the container and fled in a car with Virginia license plates.

He tried to return but was again scared off by the neighbor, according to Paul Audette, who identified himself as Mr. Sawicki's son-in-law. The man drove away from the house while the neighbor followed and noted the license plate.

Not knowing what had been dumped in the yard, police called for a massive hazardous-materials response, including personnel from area fire departments and the Department of Environmental Protection.

Lt. Poirier said the chemical gave off a strong odor.

"I walked up to it and I instantly got a headache," he said at the scene yesterday afternoon.

Fire Lt. Gregory F. Lagoy said the department called the District 6 hazardous materials team. The District 6 team consists of personnel from Central Massachusetts to as far away as Rockport on the North Shore.

A team member from Fitchburg never made it to the scene. The hazardous materials response truck he was driving on Route 2A collided with a car on its way to Route 2, sending the truck into the woods. There were no injuries, but both vehicles had major damage.

The hazardous materials truck was pulled from the woods about 4 p.m., three-and-a-half hours after the collision, according to Fitchburg Deputy Fire Chief Robert J. Haley.

Firefighters are looking for witnesses to the collision, which, according to unconfirmed accounts, occurred when a car passed another vehicle that had slowed to let the hazardous materials truck pass. Anyone with information is asked to call the Fitchburg Police or Fire departments.

A state police accident reconstruction team was called in because the incident involved a state vehicle, Deputy Chief Haley said.

The rest of the hazardous response team was in place on Chestnut Street by 12:30 p.m., Lt. Lagoy said.

"They took samples of the liquid and also did air monitoring," he said. "We were able to determine there was no immediate hazard to the neighborhood."

An off-duty company of city firefighters was called in to cover the station, along with personnel from Hubbardston.

As crews cordoned off a section of the residential street, those already at home were allowed to remain if they agreed to stay indoors and close their windows, Lt. Poirier said.

Police were able to speak to the alleged chemical dumper by cell phone as he drove south through Connecticut.

"We're leaning to the possibility it may have been a malicious injury to the man's garden," Lt. Poirier said. "He admitted to doing what he did."

The homeowner whose yard was targeted told police he knew the Virginia man from previous business dealings, Lt. Poirier said.

Lt. Poirier declined to offer further details.

Police will seek a criminal complaint against the Virginia man for malicious destruction of property, Lt. Poirier said.

"We're going to work with Virginia authorities to seek restitution for what this guy did. He shut down a whole neighborhood. It looked like a childish prank."

Crews from the DEP remained at the scene late yesterday afternoon, and Clean Harbors, an environmental cleanup firm, had been called in to assist.