Sandisfield snow plow crew has its hands full


SANDISFIELD -- Well before morning commuters would roll out of their driveway, Tim O'Neil was on his way to downing his second coffee and had clocked several hours of work.

The 29-year-old who works at the Sandisfield Highway Department got the call at 4:30 a.m. He had been waiting for it. The snowstorm on Wednesday had reached Sandisfield, and he and other town employees got into their snow plows and took on Mother Nature, making sure the streets were driveable.

By 7 a.m., Roosterville Road and Route 57, which serves as one of the town's main arteries, had been plowed. Twice.

"We all have our own roads, and we all know what to do," O'Neil said.

On Wednesday, Berkshire County was hit with the largest snowstorm in a month with six to 12 inches of snowfall in different parts of the county.

In Sandisfield, which is the largest town geographically in the county, the road crews had the tall responsibility of maintaining more than 90 miles of road.

The strategy typically is to plow the middle of the road and then push the snow off to each side. Salt is dumped from the truck to help the snow melt, while the sand provides traction for vehicle wheels.

The town's road maintenance crew can increase to six people when the circumstance merit it -- and everyone, including contractors, was called out on Wednesday.

David McCuin, who has worked 11 winters with the Highway Department, says the "Sandisfield Snow Belt" can be difficult to maintain because elevation can near 1,700 feet in certain sections.

"We get flurries, and then we get 11 inches of snow," said McCuin, a native of the town. He joined the department following a job where he drove a propane gas truck that could carry 3,000 pounds.

"[Earlier this week], we got four inches of snow," McCuin said. "We weren't supposed to get anything. Hartford said, ‘you in the Berkshires aren't supposed to get anything.' They say the Berkshires, but they don't say [anything about] Sandisfield."

The first snowfall was predicted to fall possibly as soon as midnight on Wednesday, Highway Superintendent Steve Harasyko said, and he had checked his window twice by 3 a.m.

"It's hard to sleep when you're anticipating working," said Harasyko, a 30-year veteran in maintaining roads. "I had a cup of cocoa and [stayed awake around 3 a.m.] and then around 4 a.m. it starts snowing and then I call these guys at 4:30 a.m."

The town's winter road maintenance budget is $165,000, which is about three-fourths spent, Harasyko said. The winter has been busy, and his crew have worked "24 or 26 days straight" without a break, he said. There have been flurries or snowfall nearly every weekend, which prompts a call to town employees -- who receive time and a half for overtime.

The employees start with a salary of $18.60 and can work their way up to $21.30.

On Wednesday, the Sandisfield Highway Department employees got the call again. When they pick up the phone, they know they have to show up for work, but their work only ends after the snowstorm leaves, which can last long after their shift ends.

By 7 a.m., there was already about 5 inches of snow; then around 11 a.m. it had increased to about 8 to 10 inches in some parts.

On Wednesday while driving his route, McCuin said his longest shift in recent years was 18 hours. For the last decade, he has maintained Hill, Lower West, and West streets, along with some of the town's dirt roads.

He drives a 2007 International Snow Plow with 310 horsepower, and he said a single run through going between 10 to 20 miles per hour can take three hours.

While driving along Lower West Street, McCuin can identify the homes of summer residents and newly purchased homes. He stops for quick chats with residents. He knows where the ditches are along his route, and he steers clear of them.

"There's a ditch right there, a lot of water in that ditch" McCuin said pointing off to his right-hand side at a patch of earth covered in snow. "It's nice to stay on the same roads because you know your roads. Then you become quicker. You get used to them."

By day's end, Sandisfield received just about a foot of snow.

"I don't think it's as bad as it was going to be," said Haraysko, who seemed pleased as he spoke. "We had about 10 inches (as of about 1 p.m.)."


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