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Fuel spill shuts Youngmann Tanker truck flips, causing evacuations and snarling traffic

Northtowns commuters found out Thursday what it was like to drive home without having the Youngmann Highway at their disposal.

And it wasn't pretty.

The Youngmann was closed in both directions near Main Street for nearly seven hours Thursday, following the early afternoon rollover of a tractor-trailer carrying 10,000 gallons of jet fuel. It reopened at 7:30 p.m.

Traffic counts show that section of the Youngmann carries at least 112,000 vehicles a day -- one of the busiest stretches of roadway in the region. Its closing created a major headache for Northtowns commuters.

"It was quite a hectic day," said Amherst Police Lt. Ronald Farszmil.

Farszmil said that despite the aggravation for motorists and the reduction in police manpower throughout Amherst as officers were stationed on traffic details at nine different locations surrounding the accident area, the response and handling of the situation all went according to plan.

"We prepare for all kinds of these incidents," he said.

The crash led to heavy congestion along alternate routes in the area -- even before the afternoon rush hour.

"I just got stuck in traffic, and that was early at about 3 o'clock," said Carol Szczepanski of Cheektowaga.

Her drive home from the Heathwood health care facility normally takes 10 minutes, but with traffic being redirected away from the Youngmann it took her a half-hour.

"You don't realize how much traffic [the Youngmann] takes," Szczepanski said Thursday afternoon, as she stood on the Main Street overpass looking down at the rolled-over truck. "You just take if for granted."

The tanker rolled over on the ramp above the Youngmann, connecting the eastbound Youngmann to the eastbound Main Street exit, at about 12:30 p.m., Amherst police said.

Absorbent pads, booms, a substance similar to cat litter and vacuum trucks were used to clean up the fuel, which dripped from the bridge onto the Youngmann and collected in the roadway's storm sewers, according to fire officials.

About 7,000 of the 10,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled from the truck, according to Farszmil. Meanwhile, the remaining 3,000 gallons in the overturned tanker were loaded into other trucks, officials said.

The cleanup was supervised by officials from the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation.

Fears of fire or explosion from the leaking fuel led authorities to evacuate residents of Ridgewood Drive and Avalon Drive, although many residents weren't home at the time. Those streets run north and south, just west of the Youngmann and south of Main Street.

Don Wolbert, who lives on Avalon, said police went door-to-door asking residents to evacuate.

Wolbert said he did not get the sense it was mandatory, so he stayed home and worked on his boat in the driveway. "It could be five or six hours," he said. "I have no place to go with three little kids."

Amherst police gave residents the "all clear" to return to their homes at 4:45 p.m.

The Youngmann was closed to eastbound traffic at Millersport Highway and to westbound traffic at the Mainline Thruway. Officials said the southbound Lockport Expressway ramp onto the eastbound Youngmann also was closed to traffic during the emergency.

Traffic also was restricted from getting on the Youngmann at Sheridan Drive and Harlem Road as well as at Main Street, officials said.

"Obviously, it's a hazmat situation with the fuel being an explosive," Farszmil said. "The people were evacuated as a precautionary measure."

The truck driver, Craig Kozlowski, 48, of Elma, was taken to Erie County Medical Center where he was being treated for a separated shoulder. His injuries were not considered life-threatening.

The truck is owned by the Griffith Energy.

Patrick Phillips, from Phillips Brothers Supply Inc. on Kensington Avenue near Main, said he had to close for the day and send his employees home.

"When I came outside, you could smell the diesel fuel pretty heavily," he said. "The cops came in and said, 'It would be good for you to leave.' "

It was good the fuel was not gasoline, authorities said, because the heavier jet fuel is less volatile than gasoline.

Phillips wasn't surprised by the location of the rollover.

"That's a common place for accidents," he said, standing near the crash site. "They come off this exit too fast."

"You can't tell," added Royetta Brown, "but it's a pretty good turn there."

Brown, who lives nearby and was watching the activity on the Youngmann from the Main Street overpass, said police told her to evacuate.

She, like other parents of many Amherst Central Schools students, also was told that she had to have someone pick up her daughter, Shinyere, 4, from Smallwood Elementary School.

The Snyder Volunteer Fire Department served as the lead agency in the accident.

News Staff Reporters T.J. Pignataro and Janice L. Habuda contributed to this report.

-mail: jrey@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com

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