A spokeswoman promised the station's insurance will pay for the repairs.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Richard Royster planned to stay just for the weekend when he drove into Austintown from his Westchester, N.Y., home Friday for a family birthday celebration.
The weekend getaway turned into a catastrophe for Royster and his cousin Daryl Kyle when they filled up their van's gas tank Sunday at the USA Gas Mart at 667 S. Meridian Road. They learned later that the gas had been diluted with water, and the water-gas mixture left the van inoperable.
Royster said about six other vehicles were also disabled after filling up at USA Gas that day.
Fred Martin Ford managed to get the 1994 conversion van running again, but the repair bill is $1,200, and Royster doesn't have the cash.
"We're stuck here. Nobody's going to lend me that kind of money, and the owner of the gas station is nowhere around," said Royster, a construction company truck driver. "I had to call my boss and tell him I can't come home."
His insurance company has refused to cover the costs, Royster said, because the men put the gas into the vehicle themselves.
Royster said a man who identified himself as a manager at USA Gas Mart promised Monday to "take care" of the repair bill, but he couldn't reach the man after that, and the station has been closed.
USA Gas reopened this morning for the first time since the problem gas was reported Sunday morning, but an employee said it was selling only store merchandise for today, and no gas.
The woman, who said she is one of several managers but would not give her name, said repair people were coming to check over the tanks and pumps today. She promised the station's insurance will pay for any diluted gas and for any car repairs necessitated by the gas.
"Everybody's making such a big deal of this," she said. "It's never happened before, and we do a very good business."
The manager said station owner Jamal Niser of Warren was out of town and not available to comment. A spokeswoman for the Mahoning County Auditor said Niser bought the business in February 1998.
No criminal activity suspected
A Youngstown police spokesman confirmed that several motorists had to have their vehicles towed to repair garages Sunday after they filled up at USA Gas Mart.
Lt. Robin Lees said police were called to the West Side Youngstown business and helped the stranded motorists call tow trucks. No complaint reports were filed, however, and officers are not investigating because the matter is private and no criminal activity is suspected.
Lees said customers tested the gas while police were there and found it contained more than half water.
The fact that the percentage of water was so high makes it likely that the dilution wasn't done on purpose, he said. "If someone was going to commit fraud, they wouldn't add so much water that their customers' cars wouldn't run."
USA Gas Mart is in a low-lying area on Meridian, and Lees surmised that heavy rains might have entered the station's underground tank if it were cracked or left uncapped.
"There's no evidence of criminal conduct," he said. "Vehicles were apparently damaged due to an inferior product, and that's a civil matter."
Towed to dealership
Jeff Bacho, operations manager at Fred Martin Ford-Mercedes Benz-Suzuki, Austintown, said Royster's van and a 2001 Ford Escape were towed to the dealership's service area over the weekend.
Work orders left by the vehicle owners indicated the vehicles had been inoperable after owners filled up at USA Gas, Bacho said. Fred Martin service technicians tested the gas in the two vehicles and found it contained as much as 95 percent water, he said.
"It was almost pure water coming out of one tank," Bacho said.
Royster's van needed new spark plugs, a fuel pump and a new fuel filter. Workers had to drain the fuel tank and replace the fuel pump on the Ford Escape.
Royster said another car was towed from the station to Greenwood Chevrolet in Austintown, but general manager Bill Palette said he had just returned from a vacation and couldn't confirm that.