Gasoline tankers, terrible danger, deafening explosions and many times tragic deaths. As I review the many I have covered, seven at today’s count. I know of two which resulted in a death or severe injury. The worst one being my first big story in 1966, a month after I began at the Record American (referenced in a another blog on this site “my first major tradgedy, 8 DOA”) and now this one on July 23, 2011.
My first call for the incident came from my friend Alan who is a freelance photographer for the Lynn Item. He is up all night listening to the scanners. While mine are running the problem is with our room air conditioner on and my hard of hearing ears I was having a problem hearing the radios which are running next to my side of the bed the extra help is needed. Thankfully I get it.
Alan said a tractor trailer flipped over in either Saugus or Revere as both police departments were yakking about it. He said they were saying Essex Street. I immediately knew in my dazed state of wakeup it was Essex Street in Saugus. I thought he meant a large tractor trailer and the saddle tanks had caught fire not realizing for a minute or two it was a gasoline tanker.
I got up slid down the pole (only kidding) got dressed quickly (my clothes and equipment are always ready) but at my age I have to make a pit stop before I get going and then I have this thing about brushing my teeth so that took another minute. Unless my destination is within a couple of minutes of my house and the extra minute or two is going to be too costly I stop for these chores.
I made great time getting there, no real traffic and knowing the area of Route One and listening to the radios I thought I could sneak around the road blocks through the Square One Mall parking lot and it worked. I also knew the police would not have all their resources in place to block off everything so soon. A few minutes later I might have had problems getting as close as I did.
So there it was, a tanker on its side, flames shooting 60 plus feet in the air and explosive thunder from the ignitions of the fuel taking place, great TV which was the only thing I was thinking about not knowing at this time a life has been lost and another person severely burned. That knowledge would put a damper on the excitement I was enjoying as I had kicked butt with my images.
I was standing in the southbound lane of Route One and the truck was less than 30-40 yards in front of me. I wished once again I had brought my tripod but carrying my still camera, a 22 pound plus video camera, two phones, extra batteries was enough. It was sweltering out there from the summer temperatures, with the humidity very high and add to that the heat from the fire; the tripod stays in the car. There was also the thought of additional explosions and having to run for cover. Less is better sometimes. Yes I am second guessing myself because the tripod would have meant steadier video but when the competition is far behind it doesn’t really matter. I envy those who can carry everything.
After spending a long time on the southbound side I ventured over to another angle closer to the tanker. I was concerned if I left where I was I might lose the great spot I had but I needed other angles. The funny part of this is I kept hearing explosions but the shots I was making of the burning fuel did not show any big blasts. I realized these explosions were taking place about 1500 to 2000 feet behind the fire well into the residential areas of Saugus where a house and other structures caught fire after the fuel floated down an adjacent stream.
After getting these shots I walked back to my original location saw a ranking trooper and asked if I could go north in the south and then go south in the north lanes as I needed to be on the other side. I was told “Stanley you have been around long enough, be careful and if you get stopped tell them I said it was okay.” I got to the other side and began trudging up and down the ramp complex to get what I needed. During all of this I was putting the video camera down and capturing great still images with my digital camera. I guess I don’t know how to use my IPhone camera as I could not get a really good shot of the fire with it or maybe the shutter of the IPhone is too slow to stop the action?
I did what I had to do, left the scene, drove to Revere where I could feed my video(I have a microwave transmitter in my company vehicle but I need line of site for a couple of receive sites in Boston and or Needham) for the Eye Opener show. In the meantime the office had sent a reporter, John Atwater, a satellite truck and two more photographers; it was like we struck a third alarm while the fire department struck 8 alarms. We kicked butt, live on the highway throughout our show and we had the video to back up the talk. We were walking the walk and talking the talk.
I reflected the rest of the day about the other tanker fires I have covered in my 45 years as a news photographer. The first one I covered was about 40 plus years earlier and less than a mile from where we were. It was also northbound on Route One and I remember the fire fighters chasing rolling streams of burning gasoline down the highway but I don’t remember any structures burning or injuries.
Another one was on route 93 northbound in the Reading area in 1978. I was wearing a walking cast after surgery for an Achilles tendon rupture. I had a plastic material boot on it to protect it from water and there I was on the highway dodging burning gasoline and water so my plaster cast would not melt.
In Methuen one weekend morning a tanker blew up at a neighborhood gas station but his time the gasoline was contained in a blown-up piece of the tanker burning as if it was in a barbeque pit. After the initial explosion it just burned straight up for a couple of hours. For the most part the fire department protected the exposures and let it burn itself out.
A couple of years ago I got a call on a Saturday morning from Matt Wilder the morning producer who heard the explosion outside of the Channel Five Studios in Needham, on Route 128/95. He looked out the window, saw the large loom up and called me. How frustrating it was as I knew no matter how fast I could get there it would not be fast enough as 40 miles can only be covered in no less than 30 plus minutes. As I was circling 128, watching the large funnel cloud of smoke and I knew when I got there it would be dissipated. When I did finally get there I was directed off the exit ramp. I walked down a parallel street, followed the hose lines and eventually talked my way onto the highway. It ended up being okay as I was the only one who was able to talk to the lucky uninjured driver about what happened.
I think the biggest story of a tanker rollover and explosion was the one in Everett a couple of winters ago. I was lying in bed wide awake around 3AM and heard a trooper call in saying a tanker had just exploded at the route 99 overpass/rotary in Everett. This location overlooked an elderly residential apartment building and houses.
I had to pass the scene I was at Saturday to get to this inferno. Down Route One straight up Route 99 wondering where the roadblocks would be hoping it was close enough to the scene to be able to do my job. I was able to work my way around several obstacles, ran through the snow covered streets. My video showed what a great job the cops and firefighters were doing to help residents evacuate their homes. There was one funny happening as Everett Police were helping the elderly from their residence, pushing wheelchairs and trying to keep everyone calm one woman said to me “this reminds me of the war years in London when I used to be taken to a shelter when the bombings started.” I asked her “when was the last time she had been up this late” and she smiled at me.
Below are links to great stories and photos done for my station WCVB-TV,