June 18, 2018
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Fire, hazardous materials spill stretch coastal rescue workers thin

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

WOOLWICH, Maine — Rescue crews from several southern midcoast towns found themselves stretched thin Saturday with two emergency calls that each presented a set of unique challenges.

One of the incidents resulted in the spill of hundreds of gallons of hazardous materials near a fragile tidal waterway.The other, a structure fire, left a family at least temporarily homeless.

The first incident unfolded at about 7:40 a.m. with a mechanical failure in a large mobile crane owned by Cote Crane and Rigging of Auburn. The gigantic crane, which had wheels along both sides and weighed nearly 100 tons, was heading north on Route 1 just past the Taste of Maine Restaurant in Woolwich. As it descended a hill into a valley at the intersection of George Wright Road, the driver began to feel some vibrations, according to Woolwich Deputy Fire Chief Phillip Skillin.

The drivetrain in the vehicle’s rear end broke apart catastrophically, said Skillin, showering the roadway with twisted and shattered pieces of metal. The crane truck came to a rest at the bottom of the hill where tidal water from Pleasant Cove, which is connected to the Kennebec River, flows under the roadway. The spot is known locally as “the dike,” said Skillin.

The tumbling metal debris tore the underside of a pickup truck that was being towed behind the crane, rupturing the smaller vehicle’s gas tank. Rescue workers arrived to find automatic transmission fluid, gasoline and 200 gallons or more of hydraulic fluid flowing toward the cove and a vernal pool that sits alongside Route 1. Heavy rain that fell throughout the morning helped the fluids spread farther and deeper into the ground.

“From an environmental standpoint, this was about the worst place on all of Route 1 for this to happen,” said Skillin.

No other vehicles were damaged and no one was injured, though Route 1 southbound was detoured for more than three hours. Skillin said he expects crews from the Department of Environmental Protection to be at the scene for several days to clean up the spill. On Saturday, workers from Clean Harbors Environmental of South Portland were soaking up the hazardous fluids with absorbent material and pumping water out of the vernal pool.

Then at about 11:40 a.m., a structure fire was reported at 670 Old Stage Road in Woolwich, just a few miles from the scene of the first accident.

Lee Wong, who lives at that address with her daughter, Christina Bibber, said she had just finished eating a meal and turned the television on when she noticed black smoke rising behind it.

“My first thought was that it was an electrical fire,” said Wong. “I yelled to my daughter, fire!”

Bibber grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed the area behind the television, but it did no good, she said. She later learned that the fire started one floor below the television, in the basement.

Bibber said she ran downstairs to her bedroom and grabbed her cellphone, its charger and some clothes she’d need to go to work later that day. She then ran outside and dialed 911. Wong also evacuated the home, which consists of a mobile home with two large additions built at either end.

“I was so black with smoke I couldn’t see anything,” said Wong. “I never expected this to happen. I always watch out for fire hazards and always keep my furnace cleaned.”

Skillin said there was fire damage in the area where the blaze started and smoke and water damage throughout the house.

“There’s no way it’s habitable,” he said. “I’ve called in the Red Cross and Salvation Army.”

Fire crews from Woolwich, Georgetown, Arrowsic, Bath, West Bath, Phippsburg and Dresden responded. Old Stage Road was closed off for more than two hours as firefighters trucked in water from a nearby dry hydrant.

Wong and Bibber were still trying to determine where they would live in the coming days but were thankful that the home was insured. Though no people were injured, at least one of their cats perished in the blaze, 9-year-old Ruby. The cat was found dead in the building, and a second cat was missing early Saturday afternoon, said Bibber and Wong. A third cat and a puppy escaped the blaze.

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