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Downed trees, no power, no fire alarms, town presses on

Nashoba Publishing/Phil Roberson
A third of a large old tree at 20 Main Street came down in last FridayÕs ice storm, crushing the familyÕs SUV and damaging the antique house. The tree fell on the front porch and branches went through windows.

PEPPERELL — Branches had just begun to tear off tree trunks when on-call Highway Department workers were sent out at 10 p.m. last Thursday.

They were joined by more workers at 3 a.m. Friday and, joined by firefighters, no one stopped until 6 p.m. that evening as the heavy ice storm brought down trees that devastated power lines, closed roads and resulted in one fatality.

VFW member John Ambrosini, a resident of Maple Street’s Fairlane Mobile Home Park, died Saturday night after suffering hypothermia in his home that had no power or heat. He refused to leave until health care personnel called to the scene evacuated him to the hospital.

Joyce Fernandez, another resident at the park who had called the press after falling branches pierced her living room ceiling and porch roof Friday morning, had said she worried about Ambrosini, who was refusing to leave his home and seek shelter elsewhere. He reportedly refused VFW District Commander Joseph Moore’s pleas and others, until town nurse Ellen Castellano called in regional health officials who summoned emergency responders.

Just outside the park’s driveway, a large fallen oak tree blocked Maple Street, having shattered a pole’s cross members that carried electric power.

Not far away, on Heald Street, Allen and Tony Arrazio and Nathan Lefebvre were struggling to remove branches and brush from the road. One hundred yards further downhill, Dennis Lefebvre had placed a homemade “road closed” sign on a 14-inch diameter tree trunk that arched across the road, leaving 7 feet of clearance for half its width.

The force of the fall had ripped electric wires from his home 250 feet off the road and moved the base of a supporting pole 18 inches through the semi-frozen ground in the process.

“People are crazy,” Lefebvre said. “They don’t even slow down for the tree. I saw one guy just duck inside the cab of his truck as he plowed through.”

Power was cut off in both the east and west of town and in some areas had not been restored as late as Tuesday afternoon. Railroad Square and some retail stores never lost electricity, however.

White Hen Pantry was crowded with a mix of people either buying food and hot drinks or merely catching a bit of warmth. Several of them said they were buying supplies for the family members and friends they had accepted into their heated homes.

Early Saturday morning, vehicles jammed the gas pumps at Cumberland Farms and Community Garage, creating lines of cars in the street reminsicent of the oil embargo of 1974.

During Friday’s confusion, firefighters were called to a house fire on Heald Street, caused by a faulty chimney, which ignited the wall of the home, and another chimney fire on Lowell Road, said Deputy Fire Chief and Highway Superintendent Peter Shattuck.

The Fire Department answered about 100 other calls that included carbon monoxide sensors that had lost power and smoking wall outlets caused when “neutral” power lines came down and a surge of electrical power crashed into house wiring, he said.

Friday afternoon, emergency crews rescued a female driver with an infant and a teenager from the roof of their vehicle on flooded Shirley Street, after the driver had bypassed “road closed” signs.

“Please, when a sign says road closed, the road is closed,” Shattuck said.

Road clearing work resumed at 7 a.m. on Saturday. Shattuck said that snow plows had been used, for the first time, to push the amazing amount of downed limbs off the asphalt surface. Highway workers were removing the debris and overhanging branches on Tuesday. Shattuck said the town is waiting for National Grid workers to remove trees from some power lines, and hopes to acquire use of one of their trucks later in the week for more road clearing.

“Do not pile branches from private property beside the road, expecting them to be picked up,” Shattuck said. “They won’t be. Burning season starts Jan. 15. Pile them up safely away from houses and acquire a burn permit then.”

Seven roads remained closed as of Tuesday morning and power had not been restored in several areas, particularly “uptown” — West, Heald and Lawrence Streets.

“Some wires are live. Don’t touch them,” Shattuck cautioned. “You can’t see electricity. The top lines on poles are power lines. The next ones down feed houses, then come cable, then telephone lines.”

Pepperell was still under a state of emergency as of Tuesday. Once an emergency is called, shelters are opened because federal aid becomes available, Shattuck explained. Later, town accountant Mike Hartnett, Emergency Management Director George Ux and Shattuck will tally up the recovery costs and meet with state and federal officials in Lowell to seek reimbursement to the town.

“I want to say that every single contractor in this town called me to offer help,” Shattuck said. “Every one. I’m grateful we have plenty of help, but people have to be patient.

“I’m extremely pleased with our help. The Highway and Fire departments displayed long-term stamina. It gets grueling and sometimes, verbally, things don’t come out right, but they understand,” he said.