A Washington County firefighter who was handling traffic control by the site of a tractor-trailer fire last Tuesday was hit by a pickup truck passing through the scene, breaking his leg and wrist.
Richard Zielinski, 75, is recovering from his injuries at a Bangor hospital, Fire Chief Lee Philbrook said. His injuries are not considered life-threatening, he said.
“He’s doing well, given the circumstances,” Philbrook said.
Zielinski was handling traffic for the Wesley Volunteer Fire Department on Route 9 when the pickup truck hit him. The fire department in rural Washington County is used to close calls with passing vehicles at roadside scenes, Philbrook said.
Zielinski was struck around 8:45 p.m., as darkness was rapidly falling, although he was wearing appropriate safety gear, the fire chief said. He had a baton with a flashing red LED light, a helmet with a light and reflective strips, and a reflective vest.
The driver of the pickup truck was traveling east at about 55 mph, which is the speed limit on the section of highway where the firefighters were working, Philbrook said. The semi truck had caught fire near where Pembroke Stream flows under the highway — “literally out in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
The pickup truck driver was coming around a “long, sweeping” curve and had about 1,000 feet of visibility to where Zielinski stood, he said. But the driver wasn’t paying attention, the fire chief said, and didn’t see the firefighter until he was about 100 feet away. Zielinski tried to get out of the way but was unable to.
The Maine State Police is investigating the collision but no charges are expected because the driver, who stopped after the collision, was not speeding, Philbrook said.
Philbrook said his department is contracted to provide fire and first-responder services to some surrounding towns, including 27 miles of Route 9, which is known as “The Airline” east of Eddington. The June 8 crash is not the first close call his firefighters have had on the remote road, which is heavily used by trucks traveling between the U.S. and Atlantic Canada.
In fact, just 20 minutes before Zielinski was hit, another car came “blistering through” the section of road where firefighters were working to put out the semi fire.
At another Rt. 9 crash last fall, in which the driver of an Oakhurst Dairy truck died, “we had multiple vehicles almost strike us,” Philbrook said.
“I’ve had to jump over a guardrail before,” he said.
Philbrook said an aggravating factor is that cellphone reception is nonexistent along sections of the highway, and even radio communications can be poor. It hinders the department’s ability to call for assistance for traffic control or, in the event of a close call, to call police to report the driver.
When Zielinski was hit by the truck, it took several attempts of trying to contact the regional communications center on the radio before the emergency dispatcher pieced together what had happened and called for an ambulance.
“It’s very frustrating for us,” Philbrook said.