Turnpike drivers got sticky surprise Tuesday night
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Over a river of goop and gunk, to grandmother's house we go ...
So it was for hundreds of drivers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike whose vehicles were damaged by a tarlike chemical that spilled from a moving tanker truck on Tuesday night.
The tar built up on tires, causing some drivers to think they'd had blowouts. In other cases, it got into engines, causing them to die. Drivers reported a surreal scene of dozens of vehicles pulled to the side, their owners peering at the damage in darkness and a driving rain.
Some drivers slowed to a crawl, their flashers on, while tractor-trailers roared by, seemingly oblivious to any sticky buildup on their big rigs.
"I'm amazed no one got killed," said Lisa Behe of Tarentum, whose Mini Cooper was damaged by the gunk. "I've never seen anything like that. It was really scary, and I don't scare easily."
The tanker, owned by Marino Transportation Services in Stevensville, Md., drove onto the turnpike at New Castle around 7 p.m. The driver, evidently unaware that his truck was leaking, continued east for about 40 miles before pulling into the Oakmont service plaza.
Maureen Gregory was driving her son from Willoughby, Ohio, near Cleveland, to Pittsburgh for a doctor's appointment. "We started seeing all these cars pulled off to the side, and everybody was looking at their tires," she said.
"People in front of us had their flashers on and were going really slow," she said. "We were totally mystified."
She felt relieved upon exiting the turnpike at Interstate 79, but a minute or two later heard "a big popping noise." She pulled over, thinking she had a flat tire. Another car pulled nearby, and its driver told her about the spill.
"He said, 'You probably have tar on your tires. You can still drive the car, but don't go fast,' " Ms. Gregory said.
Frank Bruno of Trafford was puzzled Wednesday morning when he found a thick accumulation of goo on the floor of his garage, right where his wife had parked their Lexus the night before after traveling on the turnpike.
"I called her at work and asked her what the heck she hit," Mr. Bruno said. It wasn't until later that they heard news reports of the spill.
"My car has got to be trashed underneath for the amount that's in my garage," he said. "It's pretty thick, nasty stuff. Thank God we saw it before the kids stepped in it and dragged it all through the house."
Some drivers whose cars were damaged were angry that the turnpike wasn't closed.
"It's really frustrating. Nobody stopped you from going through that stuff," said Betsy Kowalski, whose Subaru was tarred. She said as she entered the turnpike at Cranberry she began seeing scores of motorists pulled to the side, peering at their tires.
"It looked like their tires were melting. We started to worry that there was acid on the road," she said. One of her tires was coated with tar, forcing her to drive slowly on her way to her home in State College. It took five hours.
State police were investigating the incident and expect to charge the truck driver with failing to secure his vehicle's load, a summary offense that carries a $300 to $1,000 fine if property is damaged or someone is injured.
Curiously, a different section of the statute has an exemption for trucks that spew feathers on the road from live or slaughtered birds or animals.
But some of the victims of Tuesday's mess might feel as though they were both tarred and feathered. Early Wednesday, the customer service number advertised by the turnpike commission wasn't working for about an hour.
And now they face the aggravation of the insurance claim process and finding substitute vehicles or getting repairs on the busiest travel weekend of the year.
Ms. Behe, herself an insurance agent, said after speaking with Travelers that because of the large numbers of damaged vehicles, the company is encouraging victims to file claims with their own insurers, who will subrogate the claims to Travelers.
Ms. Gregory said a Travelers representative told her more than 400 claims had been filed and the trucking company's liability coverage probably wouldn't be sufficient to compensate everyone.
The agent also said the claims process would take several months, Ms. Gregory said.
Turnpike crews used sand, salt and cinders to congeal the spilled chemical, then snow plows pushed it out of the way, spokesman Carl DeFebo said.
He said the tar was fully removed by about 11 p.m. but that drivers may encounter rough or uneven pavement in the spill zone.
He said the turnpike did its best to issue alerts on its website and highway advisory radio system once it became aware of the nature and extent of the spill but acknowledged that most drivers wouldn't have seen or heard them.
The turnpike recommends that owners of damaged vehicles call Travelers, the truck company's insurer, at 800-238-6225 and follow the prompt for business claims. They should use claim number F9Y7972.
First Published November 24, 2011 12:00 am