PITTSFIELD — Pittsfield saw nearly three dozen intersection crashes over the two-day Christmas weekend as road crews struggled to remove ice and snow after Friday’s surprise blizzard, sparking a rumor they’d gone on strike.
Motorists spent Saturday and Sunday slipping and sliding after Friday’s snow and ice storm turned roads into a hazardous, treacherous mess. Conditions triggered a slew of complaints to city officials.
Clean-up efforts were hampered by unexpected amounts of snow Friday and by plunging temperatures that foiled use of normal ice-melting techniques.
According to Pittsfield police, 69 minor motor vehicle accidents were reported between 4:15 p.m. Friday — as darkness fell and rain turning to snow transformed roads into hockey rinks — and 3:51 p.m. Sunday.
Thirty-four of those accidents occurred at intersections, including four at the intersection of East and Newell streets. Two of the accidents at East and Newell took place 30 minutes apart early Saturday afternoon. A fifth accident was reported at 6:51 p.m. Sunday at Belanger Field, on the corner of East and Newell.
The worst day was Saturday, when 36 accidents took place. Twenty-three of those collisions occurred after 4 p.m. Sunset on both Friday and Saturday was 4:24 p.m.
“That’s far too many, obviously,” said At-Large City Councilor Peter White, referring to the number of weekend accidents.
City Council President Peter Marchetti, who has served on the council for 19 of the past 21 years, said he received around 40 phone calls, emails and Facebook posts from residents about dangerous road conditions on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that many calls on any issue, period, before,” Marchetti said.
Making of a mess
Public Utilities Commissioner Ricardo Morales said city employees and contractors worked to clear roads from Friday night through Sunday. A rumor that crews had gone on strike was not true, White said.
“We had guys working all shifts and (private) contractors,” Morales said. But initial staffing had expected a lighter impact.
“Going in on Friday, all the forecasts were showing a dusting to a half inch of snow,” Morales said Monday. “We had our guys ready for that. We did not call a snow emergency because of that.”
According to National Weather Service records at Pittsfield Municipal Airport, rain changed to light snow between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Friday. Heavy snow then fell between 4:30 and 5:30, followed by a break. Light snow resumed at 10 p.m. and ended shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday. Pittsfield’s total snow accumulation was 3.9 inches.
“We had our guys in at 2 p.m. [Friday] and around 4 it began turning into snow,” he said. “It came down about 2 inches to 2½ inches per hour for about two and a half hours. It was real fast. It quickly changed for the worst.”
Snow falling that fast at rush hour, with so many vehicles on roads, prevented crews from doubling up on their efforts, Morales said. Unlike the state, Morales said the city does not pre-treat roads before snow storms with magnesium chloride, which lowers the melting point of water to prevent build-ups of ice.
“That’s something we’ve never done,” he said. “I can’t speak for other towns, but we would need different equipment and trucks to dispense magnesium chloride.
“Not having any real material to fend off turning (water) into ice, the snow packed heavily on our main roads and in all our quadrants as well,” he said. “We were now dealing with rapidly changing water and snow into ice.”
Morales said crews then began treating roads with “hot mix” — a blend of sand and rock salt that it places on roads when the temperature drops below 15 degrees. But snow became so packed onto the ice that the plows couldn’t move it off roads.
“Plowing doesn’t do anything,” Morales said. “It’s hard-packed snow on ice on top of the road. There’s nothing you can do to scrape it up. What needs to be done is breaking it, and that breaks down with materials. With those chemicals the best way to employ it is pretreating before it forms.”
On Saturday, the city put more trucks on roads and began using calcium chloride in an attempt to break up the ice. Morales said the temperature was so low it didn’t do much good. “The problem on Saturday was the sun did not come out and temperatures did not rise to levels that would help the situation. On Sunday we were able to put down the calcium chloride and get some of the roads to begin to open back up.”
The weekend road-clearing problems are the result of several issues, White said.
“I don’t know if I can really nail down one reason,” he said. “Everything I say is speculation because I wasn’t out with the crews. To me it seems like we got a storm that came in far heavier than expected.
“The commissioner was out driving around all weekend,” White said, referring to Morales. “We often got real-time reports.”
According to both Marchetti and White, Morales is expected to present a report to City Council to describe road-clearing work last weekend, along with steps to try and prevent a similar situation from happening again.
White said the plan is to have the report presented at the council’s next meeting, Jan. 10. He said councilors hope to work with Morales to improve things before that presentation.
“I hope nobody plays a blame game with this,” White said. “We really need to work together to find solutions to not have a storm hit us like this again. And not have road conditions like they’ve been two days after a storm.”