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Evacuation snarls traffic, pinches businesses

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October 25, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Monday’s train accident transformed downtown Middlebury from its usual beehive of activity to an almost eerie no-man’s land.

Local police and fire officials blocked off a whopping 30 roads leading into, and out of, the core village area while investigators and clean-up crews combed through the toppled rail tankers along the Otter Creek near Merchants Row.

Motorists accustomed to traveling through Middlebury via Routes 7, 125 and 30 found themselves making detours.

Authorities established a “hot zone” near the accident site that they sought to keep free of vehicle traffic. That zone extended around the core village area and included all, or portions, of Charles Avenue, Court Square, North Street, Stewart Lane, Methodist Lane, Middle Seymour Street, Park Street, Bakery Lane, Shannon Street, Storrs Avenue, Franklin Street, Chipman Park, Water Street, South Pleasant Street, Cross Street, Duane Court, Mary Hogan Drive, Court Street, Benedict Lane, Merchants Row, Main Street and North Pleasant Street.

Police established two routes around Middlebury for passenger traffic, according to Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley. One led from Route 7 through Buttolph Acres, connecting with High Street. The other, southbound, was from Route 7 to Stewart Lane, followed by Seminary Street to Foote Street to Route 7 south of the downtown.

Vermont State Police stopped commercial traffic at the intersection of Routes 7 and 17 and routed southbound commercial traffic out to Route 22A. Northbound traffic was stopped at Route 125 in East Middlebury before it got into town and it was diverted to Route 116.

Businesses and residences on Merchants Row, portions of Main Street, Cross Street, Water Street, South Pleasant Street and the northern portion of Charles Avenue were evacuated. More than 400 affected residents were asked to stay overnight with friends or family, or head to the Middlebury American Legion Post 27 off Wilson Road where the Red Cross had set up a temporary shelter.

South Pleasant Street resident Carol Chandler was among a few dozen people who sought refuge at the Legion. Around 20 people stayed there overnight, according to Post 27 Legion Commander Richard Bullock.

Chandler had finished her shift at Greg’s Meat Market when she found out about the train accident. She and her brother Kirk — an Addison County Transit Resources bus driver — suddenly found themselves unable to return to their homes.

“This is the first time this has ever happened and I hope I never have to do this again,” Chandler said on Monday evening, as she sat at a table and played cards with other evacuees. She hoped to be able to return to her home early the next morning to wash up and change clothes in time for work at 6 a.m.

Residents were allowed back into their homes Tuesday morning.

Rob Levine, regional executive of the Northern Vermont Chapter of the American Red Cross, said on Monday his organization had hundreds of cots at its disposal to accommodate anyone in Middlebury who was displaced due to the accident.

“Our response is to make sure that the emergent needs of people are met,” Levine said. “It’s clear now that the emergent needs are housing and we will take care of that as long as people need it. There is nothing more unsettling than being told you have to leave your house because of an emergency situation.”

Scores of state and local emergency responders manned road barricades and directed people to detours and/or the shelter. Among those responders were more than 110 Addison County firefighters from 11 area towns. That number dwindled down to around 15 firefighters by early Tuesday afternoon, as most roads reopened to traffic.

Middlebury Fire Chief Rick Cole and his department were lauded for quickly putting out a few small fires around the train very shortly after the accident, despite the inherent risks.

Downtown Middlebury retailers and restaurants were still taking stock of potential losses as a result of being closed off to downtown traffic on Monday afternoon and evening.

Middlebury Business Association Coordinator Gail Freidin said she believes area lodgers and eateries bore the brunt of the hardship.

“One night of fall foliage business for area restaurants — ouch,” Freidin said Tuesday morning.

The Middlebury Inn on Court Square was told to evacuate its customers on Monday afternoon, according to Jeff Costello, general manager of the business. The inn tried to reach those who had made reservations for that evening to warn them to seek other accommodations. Those the inn couldn’t reach got the bad news at the door.

“It’s going to affect about 27 people,” Costello said while standing in an uncharacteristically quiet lobby on Monday evening.

Costello said he had received mixed reactions from affected customers.

“Some didn’t want to leave … but because we are on the mandatory evacuation list, we can’t take that chance,” Costello said.

While the inn lost business, the economic damage would’ve been worse had the accident occurred about a week earlier, Costello noted. That’s when the fall foliage was at its peak.

“It’s quieter this week,” Costello said.

Some restaurants along the periphery of the “hot zone” — such as Fire & Ice on Seymour Street — stayed open, though the commotion and detours made it a tough night for most.

As of Wednesday, Charles Avenue, South Pleasant Street, Cross Street and Water Street remained closed to through traffic.

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