HAVERHILL — As he backed his truck into a parking lot to deliver heating oil Monday morning, Michael Kent felt a sensation he had never experienced before.
Kent, a driver for the Northern Essex Fuel Corporation of Merrimac, was feeling the right rear tire of his truck slipping into a sinkhole at River Street Auto Body, 101 River St.
"All I was thinking was something you can't print," he later said as he watched a tow truck prepare to carry his truck away from the lot.
The incident happened around 10:30 a.m. Had it not been for the quick response of the city's police and fire departments, it could been resulted in a huge mess, officials said.
Officials at the scene said the truck was carrying 2,600 gallons of fuel and was on the verge of tipping over when authorities arrived.
"They chaulked one side of it and a tow truck secured the other so it wouldn't tip any further," said Haverhill police Sgt. Brian Smith, adding the tow truck came from Coady's Towing Service in Lawrence.
Another Northern Essex Fuel company truck arrived and workers transferred the fuel from the sinking truck to the other truck to prevent a spill.
Smith said there was no infrastructure damage to River Street. He said the city's highway, water and sewer departments are surveying the area to make sure there are no problems with water or sewer pipes.
"It's still under investigation," said Fire Chief William Laliberty. "There's a sewer line which runs through that area, and we want to make sure there is no damage to it."
The truck received damage to its undercarriage as it fell into the sinkhole. Smith said Al's Towing Service of Exeter, N.H., would transport the truck back to Merrimac because it was not safe to drive.
As officers directed traffic past the scene along River Street, a busy road which connects the downtown to Interstate 495, Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Akstin said workers from the city's Highway Department came prepared with sand bags to keep fuel from spreading in case of a spill onto the parking lot and street.
"We responded thinking it was going to be a spill and how are we going to contain it," said Akstin, adding the Fire Department sent two pumps and a rescue truck to the scene. "Luckily, we were able to transfer the fuel from the truck to another one."
Akstin said he didn't know how the sinkhole developed, but that he was glad a crisis was averted.
"There's a drain in front of the building and further down the street, so had it (the fuel) leaked, it would have been a huge mess," he said. "We would have had to call the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) first and place sand bags everywhere."
Follow Peter Francis on Twitter @PeterMFrancis and on Tout @PFrancis