Bryan Eaton/Staff Photo A tanker carrying 10,000 gallons of gasoline lies on its side blocking the northbound lane of Interstate 95 in a four-vehicle accident yesterday morning. The highway was shut down for hours as crews tried to contain the leaking fuel, with fears of some going into the nearby Merrimack River.

NEWBURYPORT — Police continue to investigate the cause of a four-car accident on Interstate 95 that sent 10 people to the hospital and caused a gasoline tanker to leak thousands of gallons of gasoline, setting off nightmarish traffic throughout the area, as well as unknown environmental impacts.

Cleanup crews and environmental experts worked through the night to gauge the damage done by the 8,000-gallon gasoline spill on the northbound lanes of I-95, a quarter-mile north of the Route 113 exit in Newburyport and less than a mile from the Merrimack River.

The accident's impacts were widespread and immediate. With damage strewn across both sides of the highway, including the tanker across all four lanes of the northbound lanes, I-95 was shut down in both directions for nearly eight hours.

As fuel leaked from the tanker, fumes permeated the air, forcing a nearby neighborhood to be evacuated and electricity and gas lines to be shut off. Gasoline spilled into storm drains that led into the Merrimack River, diverting boat traffic and causing potential wildlife impacts that are still being monitored.

State police investigators believe the chaos began yesterday morning with an erratic driver traveling north on I-95 with seven people in an SUV, including a number of children.

An eyewitness said traffic was moving smoothly at about 65 miles per hour in both directions at 9:15 yesterday morning when suddenly a car flipped up and across the highway divide and into oncoming traffic.

In order to avoid colliding with the car, the fuel tanker driver, Donald Branham, 52, of New Hampshire, slammed on his brakes, and the tank began to jack-knife around the truck cab.

"I could see smoke, and I started to slow down," said truck driver Eddie Sphere, who said he was driving a hundred feet or so behind the tanker when it began to skid. "I saw the car flipping. I saw the tank flipping on its right side. There was a lot of smoke coming out of his tires."

Witnesses told police the driver of a 2001 Ford Expedition, Salma Aguilar, 32, of Everett was weaving in and out of traffic, which may have set off the chain-reaction accident. Aguilar has not been charged.

In a matter of moments, three passenger vehicles and the tanker were involved and 10 people injured, two severely.

"We got a report of a three-, possibly a four-car crash originating on the southbound side," state police Lt. James Freeman said. "Two minivans were involved. We believe the two minivans collided, and one rolled out onto the southbound and one rolled into the northbound lane."

Aguilar's Expedition lay in the southbound lane for much of the day, its windshield smashed and torn away.

Two people who were ejected from Aguilar's vehicle, a man and 14-year-old juvenile, remained critically injured as of last night, according to state police. Both were MedFlighted from Anna Jaques Hospital.

One of the vehicles involved was a Toyota Corolla operated by Marianne Curcio, 29, of Washington Street, Newburyport. Curcio, who was driving alone, was treated and released at Anna Jaques Hospital. Two people driving in a Honda Odyssey were also treated at nearby hospitals.

As emergency and cleanup crews descended on the scene, southbound traffic was rerouted to Interstate 495 south in Salisbury, causing traffic to back up for miles into New Hampshire. Northbound traffic was rerouted through the Scotland Road exit to Route 113 and Route 1.

The detours caused bottlenecks at intersections throughout the city. Graf Road to Low Street was moving at a standstill most of the afternoon, as was traffic on High Street and the Gillis Bridge.

Emergency personnel worked feverishly to contain the gasoline spill, using foam and fume retardants while building berms around the storm drains to limit the river's exposure to the spill.

Shortly after the accident, Newburyport fire Chief Stephen Cutter ordered utilities in the area of Laurel Road, a side street off Ferry Lane, be shut off after a high vapor reading was detected.

"Right now, what we're trying to do is minimize the oil spill, and we're very concerned for the homes in the Laurel Drive area," Newburyport Marshal Thomas Howard said yesterday morning. "There's a high level of gas in the air, so we're shutting the power and evacuating all the homes."

Mary Zinck of 6 Laurel Road was among those evacuated.

"My sister was at the house waiting for the kids to get off the school bus," Zinck said, noting as soon as her children arrived, her sister took the children to her Rowley home. "I was homeless all day, begging my neighbors for lunch."

Zinck said while she never smelled a strong odor of vapors, homes located in the cul-de-sac at the end of the road were most affected. The homes of Evelyn Kovach and firefighter Michael Kent were among those most affected. Department of Environmental Protection personnel are still investigating damage to the residents' soil.

"I guess it all got dumped right there," Zinck said. "It's really bad. I don't know how the DEP is going to get that out."

A home serving developmentally disabled adults on the opposite side of the highway was also evacuated, Howard said.

The extent of pollution caused by gas that was spilled along the roadway, into storm drains and into the Merrimack River, remains under investigation. Police said they would be working throughout the night to find out how bad the damage is.

Freeman said an accident reconstruction team was on the scene trying to determine the cause of the crash. Of the 10 injured, six were treated at Anna Jaques Hospital, two of whom were admitted. Others were sent to Portsmouth, Merrimack Valley and Exeter hospitals.

The driver of the fuel tanker, owned by Aranosian Oil out of Concord, N.H., was not injured and stood by throughout the day as fire officials from Byfield, Newbury, West Newbury, Groveland, Amesbury, Salisbury, Rowley and Newburyport sought to minimize vapors by spraying the tanker with foam.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency were on hand, as were state hazmat teams and at least five teams from Newburyport's Enpro Environmental Cleanup Services. Experts were attempting to absorb the spill by dumping sand along the spill site.

Shortly after 2 p.m., personnel righted the tractor trailer and moved it farther down the highway in the southern direction. Crews then worked to drain any residual oil left in the truck's barrel.

At 3:30 p.m., the southbound side of the highway was reopened, and traffic began flowing with residual backups. Shortly after 4 p.m., traffic on both sides was flowing, and police said the traffic was improved.

Staff writers Kirsten Michener and Victor Tine contributed to this report.

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