TRENTON, Maine — In June 2003, it was the slow transportation of a large tree on a flatbed truck on Route 3 that caused it. In October 2006, it was gale-force winds that toppled power poles on the causeway to Mount Desert Island. Last fall, a structure fire at a house on Route 3 closed the roadway.
And on Wednesday afternoon, an accident involving a small pickup truck and a Downeast Transportation bus became the latest incident that resulted in a traffic jam as vehicular travel on and off Mount Desert Island ground to a halt for hours.
Stopped cars on routes 3 and 102 stretched for miles Wednesday evening from the accident scene, located directly in front of Trenton Flooring & Furniture on Route 3, as motorists waited for response personnel to clear the roadway. For about six hours, cars and trucks sat motionless while the pickup and bus blocked the road between Route 230 and the MDI causeway.
The section of Route 3 between the end of Route 230 in Trenton and where routes 102 and 198 branch off at the head of the island is a little more than a mile long and is the only road that connects MDI and its 10,000 or so residents to the rest of Maine. In the summer, thousands of tourists join the daily flow of MDI residents, seasonal tourism industry workers and hundreds of Jackson Laboratory employees that drive across the causeway every day.
Wednesday’s accident occurred around 3:30 p.m., right around the time that many Jackson Lab employees were finishing up work for the day.
Traffic initially was allowed to pass the damaged vehicles, but that changed when firefighters realized the fuel on the propane-powered bus was leaking.
Any slight spark could cause a dangerous explosion, officials feared, so they shut down the road and trained a jet of water from a fire hose on the area where the front end of the pickup remained stuck in the left side of the bus. Unable to stop the leak, they decided to let all the propane escape out of the fuel tank before they moved the vehicles.
More than six hours later, the propane was gone, the damaged vehicles moved, and the road was opened back up. Many people had missed or canceled appointments. Others got home after their families had gone to bed. And the local elementary school had to postpone its eighth-grade graduation ceremony until the following day.
Richard Gray, Trenton’s fire chief, said Thursday that a valve on the bus propane tank snapped off and two crews of firefighters that got a close look at the tank told him the tank had ruptured. Because of the physical properties of propane, ice can form on propane tanks as the gas drains out which, as in Wednesday’s incident, can obstruct an opening and cause the gas to leak more slowly, he said.
Wednesday’s cool temperatures, he added, helped extend the amount of time it took for the gas to seep out of the tank.
Gray added that his department’s response to the accident went “very well,” given the circumstances.
“If there hadn’t been a threat of explosion, we could have let traffic go by,” the chief said. “Short of building a new bridge [to MDI], there’s really not much you can do.”
According to Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Sargent, the accident happened when the bus pulled out of a parking lot driveway onto Route 3 in front of the 2000 Dodge pickup. The pickup truck could not stop in time, Sargent said.
“The truck really had nowhere to go,” the deputy said.
The pickup driver, Timothy Turner, 50, of Mount Desert, complained of back and knee pain after the collision, Sargent said, but did not sustain any apparent serious injuries. The bus driver, Leigh Hosley, 74, of Livingston, Texas, was unharmed, he added.
Both vehicles received “considerable” damage in the collision, according to the deputy. He said he does not expect to file any charges against the bus driver.
Paul Murphy, general manager for Downeast Transportation, said Thursday that at the time of the accident, the bus was being used for a routine paid passenger service between Ellsworth and Bar Harbor. The bus is painted with the Island Explorer logo, he said, but that free seasonal service on and around MDI does not start until June 23. Downeast Transportation is the operator of the Island Explorer system.
Eleven passengers were on board the bus when it turned out of a former hotel property toward Bar Harbor and was hit by the truck, according to Murphy. Three of those passengers were taken to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, where they were treated for minor injuries and then released, he said.
Murphy said he understands how “painful” it is for MDI area residents when Route 3 near the head of the island is shut down.
“We sincerely regret that,” Murphy said.
He said that when any Downeast Transportation bus is involved in an accident, the safety of passengers, staff, the public and responding firefighters is a primary concern.
“Better that we are talking about a huge inconvenience than a loss of life,” Murphy said.
Murphy said he does not question how Wednesday’s accident was handled by response personnel, but that there might be ways going forward to improve response capabilities to Downeast Transportation or Island Explorer bus accidents. In the past, Downeast Transportation has donated buses to the local fire department for training purposes, he said.
No such arrangements have been made yet, he said, but Downeast Transportation would be happy to host a workshop in Trenton in which a trained technician from the bus manufacturer would discuss with local firefighters how the bus’s propane power and storage systems work.
“We will be picking this apart with a fine-toothed comb and I am sure we are not alone in that,” Murphy said.
Nate Young, police chief in Bar Harbor, said his department got many irate calls Wednesday evening, even though the Bar Harbor police and fire departments had no control over what was happening at the Trenton accident scene.
Young said he is curious if there may have been a way to allow traffic to move along Route 3 while first responders dealt with the accident. Young said he intends to request that MDI-area public safety officials meet with Andrew Sankey, the head of the county’s emergency management agency, to discuss how such incidents are handled.
“The island community needs to get a better understanding of what’s going to happen” in similar situations in the future, Young said.
Sankey said Thursday that he plans to hold such a meeting so public safety officials from Trenton, MDI and perhaps other towns can review the incident. In addition to the accident itself, an ambulance had to be called for a motorist stuck in traffic in Trenton who was having a diabetic reaction, and other tow trucks had to be called for vehicles that broke down or were left in the travel lanes when traffic stopped.
The more response agencies learn about what happened and what can happen, the better prepared they will be for the next large-scale incident, he said.
“All players will have a role and have a voice,” in reviewing how such situations are handled, he said.
Sankey said the role of propane in how the incident played out was relatively minor, compared to the location of the accident and the time of day it occurred. Other types of fuel also can create hazards that cause traffic jams, he said. The accident could have involved an even larger vehicle that blocked the roadway, or could have resulted in a fatality, either of which likely would have created significant delays for people trying to drive to or from MDI, he said.
The EMA chief said the agency took steps last night to make the public aware of the situation. Media assistance is always appreciated and encouraged, he said, and the Ellsworth Police Department posted updates on its Facebook page. Information was sent to broadcasters in the area and digital message signs were placed along Route 1A in Dedham and Route 3 in Trenton to warn motorists that they would face delays.
“We’ll use whatever medium we can,” he said.
Sankey said that, had there been a pressing emergency on MDI at the same time that the road was blocked, officials could have used other ways to get people off the island. If there had been a medical emergency, he said, LifeFlight helicopter could have been called. If LifeFlight was not available, local officials could call upon Maine Marine Patrol or the U.S. Coast Guard to transport someone off the island by boat.
In the event of a mass evacuation, Sankey said, there are still more options. Both Coast Guard and Marine Patrol boats would be available, he said, as would the Swans Island car ferry Captain Henry Lee and private fishing and whale watch vessels. Any such mass evacuation most likely would be prompted by advance warning of an approaching storm, he added, which would give officials time to get people off the island in an orderly fashion.
As for the response to Wednesday’s accident, Sankey said it went about as well as it could have.
“I think the response was perfect,” he said.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.