April 3,1980—-April 3, 2020 40th Anniversary of the worst chemical spill in the history of The Commonwealth

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Written by Mayor Emeritus Gene Brune

My “baptism by fire”, so to speak, came three months into my first term as Mayor. At about 8:30 a.m. on the morning of April 3, 1980, I received a telephone call at my home, just as I was about to leave for my office.

I was notified that there was an accident at the B&M yard. A Boston & Maine switching engine, consisting of a locomotive and 38 cars, rammed the side of a tank car. It pierced the skin of steel, 7/16” thick on the container car, causing a 16” long gash into the container. The damaged container was carrying 13,000 gallons of phosphorus trichloride. The chemical was spilling out of the tank car at the rate of 100 gallons per minute. It was televised as the worst chemical spill in the history of the Commonwealth.

When I got to the scene of the accident I thought that I was on a movie set. I saw smoke billowing all over the sky, police cars, ambulances, fire engines from several cities, civil defense cars, bulldozers and, sad to say, firemen being treated. It really looked like a made for television movie, only it was real.​

My first order was to call for the evacuation of the immediate area. I later expanded that evacuation to several thousand residents.

I said to my staff, “It looks like we have much to do and we better do it right.” The press was after me to make a statement. I knew that first I had to meet with my fire chief Charlie Donovan to find out the facts and exactly where we stood at that point. I also needed to find out all that I could in just minutes, just what kind of a toxic chemical “phosphorus trichloride” was.

We called a press conference at my office soon after I got myself organized. Every television and radio station in the state was at city hall. I explained what had happened and the status of where we were at the present time. I relayed that the chemical, phosphorus trichloride, was a clear, colorless and highly volatile liquid that was corrosive to most metals.

If this substance came in contact with the skin it would produce major burns. Also, the chemical was so strong that it could very quickly turn the chrome or other parts of a vehicle into rust. Most importantly, I informed everyone that very serious health problems could develop in those breathing this very potent and dangerous chemical.

I explained that I would be working very closely with the 15 state, federal and local agencies on hand to help us including: the State Civil Defense, the State Secretary of Public Safety, engineers from Monsanto Chemical, the Federal Railroad Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, B&M officials, state and local police, other experts, and of course, Somerville Fire Chief Charlie Donovan.

We set up command centers at the site and my office. Knowing that this would be an all nighter, I had my staff set up space, telephones, coffee, etc., for the press. I found out later that this was a gesture that they all appreciated. I just thought that it was the right thing to do.

One of our most serious problems was keeping the flowing chemical away from the sewer system. In order to avoid this, the Fire Department needed to get a front-end loader and make a trench so that the chemicals would not spread to the Joy Street storm drains.

In so doing, our firemen, without protective suits and breathing equipment, were exposed to the physical effects this chemical had on them. The chemical had a pungent odor and was extremely irritating to their eyes and mucus membranes.

One Monsanto expert informed us that, when water is poured onto phosphorus trichloride, a cloud of hydrochloric acid and phosphorus acid (both toxic), is formed.

A second Monsanto expert told us that the white cloud issuing from phosphorous pentoxide is a relatively nontoxic smoke screen used by the military. I decided to err on the side of caution, and, when the wind started to shift, I ordered the evacuation of all homes from Washington Street to Cross Street. By the end of the day, I had ordered the evacuation of about 14,000 citizens, including the school children from the Pope and East Somerville Schools.

The real heroes were the firemen. I was never so proud of our firemen as I was that day. Each of them did an outstanding job. Sad to say, we had several casualties. Firefighters Kevin F. Sullivan, Anthony McDade and Lieutenant Edward L. Clifford were all permanently disabled and retired as a result of injuries received at the spill.

A fourth firefighter, Robert J. Wilker, was injured and spent over a week in the hospital. This was also a new experience for all of our firefighters. We suffered the largest chemical spill in the history of the Commonwealth, and, sad to say, it became an intense learning experience for each of them.

In speaking with the State Secretary of Safety, as well as the State Civil Defense Director, I was told that, like it or not, as Mayor, I was in complete control of everything that happened. Suggestions could be offered, but all decisions and orders had to come from me. What was it Harry Truman once said? “The buck stops here.” It was true.

Perhaps the biggest decision that I had to make came about 2:00 a. m. when I was called back to the site for a very important meeting. Just about everyone that played a part in working to resolve this disaster was sitting around a very long table. During the day we had to decide if we needed to siphon the balance of the phosphorous trichloride from the tanker car. When we completed the operation, we found that there must have been six thousand gallons now settled into the ground. Our problem was that we had to rid the ground of every aspect of the chemical. We could not allow the ground to remain contaminated.

The chemical engineers came up with what they thought would be the best solution. If we poured ten parts water to one part chemical, this might rid the ground of any contamination. However, this choice could very well cause a huge amount of white chemical smoke to hang over our city, as well as surrounding cities such as Cambridge, Medford or Charlestown. Naturally, if the wind blew, the result would be even more disastrous and could force even more evacuations. I also worried about possibly having to evacuate the Somerville Hospital. As it stood, I had already evacuated over fourteen thousand people during the day.

Another possibility was to pour ten parts sand to one part chemical onto the ground. The downside might be that the sand would not work and the ground would remain contaminated.

I spent the good part of the next hour speaking with engineers and others, in order to learn more, and further weigh the pros and cons of each approach: water versus sand. No matter what, the decision was mine and mine alone. I reconvened the meeting and stated that I had made my decision.

I also told them that I had no problem being the one to make this decision, and I would also not have a problem with any criticism any one of them would have if my decision did not work. “When you hear my decision, if anyone in the room disagrees, I would appreciate it if the individual(s) involved would tell me immediately if and why they think that I am wrong,” I said.

My decision was to pour sand, and not water, on the contaminated ground. We would also test the ground daily, for the next two weeks. Each and every person in the room proceeded to tell me that they were happy with my decision. I went away feeling hopeful.

Thank God I made the right decision. I have to admit that I was scared, but I was more confident about the sand than I was about the water. I would be remiss if I didn’t give huge thanks to Fire Chief Charlie Donovan, Deputy Chief John Brosnahan and Lt. Frank Kelly for their prompt actions throughout that fateful day and night.

During that day, the Somerville Hospital examined over five hundred residents and admitted two firefighters. Mass. General Hospital examined 20 and admitted one firefighter. The Lawrence Memorial Hospital examined 13 and admitted one firefighter and Central Hospital examined 30.

I was also told that the Somerville Hospital kitchen served 368 sandwiches, 89 dozen cookies and 670 cups of coffee. The hospital never told me those facts. I read about them in an article, at a later time. Thank you so much, Somerville Hospital.

The spill was a very serious accident, but it proved to me that, in a time of need, people are great. Everything went so smoothly. I asked the MDC Police to continue checking the streets where we needed to evacuate citizens and to monitor stores that had to close. Amazingly, we didn’t have one case of looting. Much like our firefighters, the Somerville Police were outstanding.

That day I saw fear in the eyes of my constituents, the uncertainly of families leaving their homes not knowing when and if they could return, and firemen who risked their lives combating a highly potent and foreign substance. Those were lasting impressions that I still have today.

As I said, I was pleased with the cooperation that I received during that entire incident. Bob and Diane Cataldo, owners of Cataldo’s Ambulance, helped out immensely throughout that day and evening. They have always been good to the city and the several non-profits that we have. I know the good work that the Cataldos do with the Little Sisters of the Poor, as well as the Somerville Hospital.

My thanks to United Divers, the air tank company on Washington Street, that kept the fire department’s air tanks filled that day and night.

The Massachusetts House and Senate, along with Governor King, were extremely cooperative. Representatives Vinnie Piro and Marie Howe along with the support of Governor King provided me with over $250,000 in monetary aid. The city was able to repay those who supplied us with goods and services. It also allowed me to look into repairing some of our fire equipment that was damaged during the spill.

Would you believe that I received letters from all over the country, and as far away as England, with words of encouragement and congratulations to all that helped out? I was also told that Somerville and its oil spill made the front pages of newspapers in Greece. Thank you, but that was surely not the best way to receive critical attention…

Whenever I could and wherever I spoke, I made it very clear that the real heroes that day were the firemen.

A very nice lady from England, who had ties to Somerville at one time, sent me a gift. It was a piece of stained glass that was part of Somerville history. It came from the old Ursuline Convent on lower Broadway. That convent was destroyed by fire by a group of angry anti-Catholics in 1834. I gave the glass to the Somerville Museum.

Officials at the hospital called my office several times to say that I should be examined. I spent a good part of that day at the site but felt good. Well, it was now five o’clock in the morning; the site was just about cleared, except for some members of the fire department. The staff at the hospital greeted me with, “Well it’s about time!” They gave me some tests and the end result was that I did have a small amount of phosphorous trichloride in my body. Thank God the chemical was completely gone after about three years. I was told that this chemical could have a serious effect on the kidneys and lungs.

I was asked to testify before several committees in different states. My testimony helped changed how tanker cars should be marked. We also asked that our city be notified whenever tanker cars with chemical materials were going to be parked in the rail yards overnight and exactly what they carried.

Some of my friends kidded me for the longest time, asking me what I was going to do for an encore. Well, guess what? Later, we suffered a bad gasoline spill near the corner of Somerville Avenue and Beacon Street. Another very scary day for me as this accident could have very well turned into a major disaster. A great story for another day

The Spirit of Somerville

817B8370-086A-4235-9329-15BE75D94603To Purchase Mayor Gene Brune’s Book “The Spirit of Somerville” you can pick one up at the Somerville Museum that’s located on Westwood Road in Somerville.

Or you can send a $20 check and mark on the check “book” Send to:
Gene Brune/The Spirit of Somerville
10 Seneca Lane
Wilmington , Mass. 01887

And Gene will ship the book to you at no shipping cost!

6 thoughts on “April 3,1980—-April 3, 2020 40th Anniversary of the worst chemical spill in the history of The Commonwealth”

  1. Thanks for bringing back memories that are beginning to fade. I spent 2 days and nights on a police motorcycle with other officers only returning to the station to refuel. Each of us was assigned with a state police trooper and we were able to ensure evacuations and public safety without major incident. I remember the apocalyptic feel ( almost like now) of seeing Mcgrath highway shut down and barriers placed across the intersection of Pearl St.
    Sorry, got posted to the wrong story earlier.

  2. I remember that day well. We were evacuated to Brandeis University. I still have a picture of that evening of my husband, myself and our 4 months old baby with the president of Brandeis.
    We moved from Somerville to the UK in the autumn of that year and I have wondered frequently how those working at the scene of the collision had any lasting health issues.

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