Toppled utility pole nearly crushed family

The remains of a 2013 Hyundai Sonata that was struck by a street pole that collapsed on it last month on Erie Street. Five people in the car— including two small children— narrowly avoided serious injury. The pole had been flagged as a danger weeks before by local residents, business owners, and at least one city official. Photo: Boston Police

Hits car with five aboard; neighbors on Erie St. had asked utilities to make repairs

At first, it seemed like another case of a Boston driver run amok: a dark stretch of roadway, a crumpled-up sedan, a toppled utility pole, a flash of flames, and the wail of sirens.

Car hits pole on a Saturday night in Dorchester.

But the June 22 incident on Erie Street near the Four Corners neighborhood actually turned out to be a case of pole hits car – a pole that neighbors, business owners, and at least one city official had flagged as a pressing danger to the public weeks before the incident.

“People were very fortunate not to have been killed in this accident,” said Darryl Smith, an assistant commissioner for the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), who responded to the chaotic scene that night. Smith leads a multi-agency Neighborhood Response Team deployed by Mayor Menino to fix quality-of-life problems in sections of Dorchester and Mattapan. “These five people walked away with their lives. It was a matter of inches.”

Related story: Who is in charge of street poles?

Those five people included four members of the same extended family, including the driver, Satisha Cleckley, 25, and her cousin and front seat passenger, Aquila Williams, 29. In the back were their daughters, Nyama Williams, age 6, and Satisha’s 3-year-old Ja’Niya— strapped into her car seat. A 22-year-old friend, Christine Clark, was also in the back seat, catching a lift home from the same party.

As Satisha Cleckley steered her rented 2013 Hyundai Sonata onto Erie Street from Greenwood Street, she briefly noted that the power lines above her were sagging extra low. But she was more concerned about the truck in front of her that was driving slow— too slow.

Satisha Cleckley and her daughter Ja'NiyaSatisha Cleckley and her daughter Ja'Niya“I was only going about two miles an hour because of the truck,” she said in an interview with the Reporter. “Then, I heard the guys up on the corner yelling, ‘The pole! The pole!’ ”

In the next instant, the heavy wooden utility pole came smashing down on the Hyundai’s hood. The impact sent the rear of the vehicle skyward and — just as abruptly – brought it smashing back to the pavement.

Dazed by a blow to her head, Cleckley was confused and thought that the flashes she saw next all around the car “looked like lightning.” In fact, the flashes and pops were downed power lines crackling and shooting flames all around the car. “It sounded like fireworks,” she said.

Cleckley and her cousin rushed to extract the girls from the back seat, but they struggled to get the doors— which were locked — open. With assistance from their friend Christine, they extricated the girls while carefully avoiding the power lines. A few moments after they were all out, the car burst into flames – Cleckley is still not sure if the fire was caused by the downed lines or the impact to the car – but either way, the flames soon erupted into a full blown conflagration as the terrified women ran toward Washington Street.

“I had to get off Erie Street because I was afraid more power lines would be coming down,” Cleckley recalled. Her fears were completely justified. The pole that fell onto her car had pulled down a second pole farther down the block, closer to the intersection with Greenwood. And the immediate neighborhood — and many streets around Four Corners— had been plunged into darkness on an 80-degree night.

A trio of Boston Police officers— who heard “an explosion” while responding to an unrelated call nearby— were on the scene in seconds. They also recorded the two poles down on Erie Street and noted that the second pole had also struck a car — which was scorched in the fire that followed. No additional injuries were noted in the police report.

A pair of ambulances collected Cleckley and her passengers about ten minutes later and drove them to Boston Medical Center, where they were all treated for minor injuries.

While the victims were at the hospital, Darryl Smith was racing to the scene after getting a text message from a neighborhood activist. Smith knew these utility poles well. He had been to Erie Street a few weeks before to eyeball the one that later toppled onto the car. “It was pointed out to me that the pole was in danger of collapsing,” Smith said. He reported what he had found to NStar as had business owners and civic activists in Four Corners who had called in their concerns that it looked about to fall at any moment.

Mike Durand, a spokesman for NStar, confirmed that the utility company did get calls about the pole’s condition, but, he said, responsibility for replacing the pole fell to a different company: Verizon, the phone company that shares the pole property with NStar.

Stephanie Lee, a spokesperson for Verizon, declined to comment in detail for this story, saying simply: “We are aware of this situation, but can’t provide any information at this time as the incident is under investigation.”

Meanwhile, Darryl Smith worries that there are other poles out there that could be a problem right now. “I think there’s a citywide concern here. I did get some other complaints that there are other poles in danger of collapse. We respectfully ask NStar and Verizon to do a full investigation of all the poles in the city to ensure that a situation like this never occurs again.”

Satisha Cleckley, who is planning a lawsuit over her losses and injuries, couldn’t agree more. The lifelong Dorchester resident returned to work this week after suffering sprains to her wrist, neck, pelvis, and ankle. She has suffered from migraines since the accident and lost many of her personal belongings in the blaze that engulfed the Hyundai.

Worst of all, she said, is the stress the incident caused her daughter Ja'Niya. “July Fourth was a nightmare for her with all the fireworks. Every time a firecracker goes off she relives that night. She’s traumatized.”

Editor's note: This article was edited on Thurs., July 17 to reflect the correct spelling of the names of the passengers in the vehicle. It was also changed to reflect the fact that Aquilla Williams and Satisha Cleckley are cousins, not sisters as originally reported.

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