A New Jersey contractor hired by Baltimore to replace an aging water main near the western city limits ruptured a major gas-transmission line yesterday, forcing authorities to evacuate more than 20 nearby homes and cut off power to another 1,500.
The damage sent natural gas into the air for more than five hours and produced a roaring waterfall-like sound.
Even a half-mile away, residents of the quiet community of brick rowhouses and single-family homes straddling the city-Baltimore County line said they could smell the pungent odor of gas and hear the hissing of the leak.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about a gas leak in West Baltimore misidentified the source for the name of the contractor that caused the leak. The Baltimore Department of Public Works released the contractor's name, not Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
The Sun regrets the errors.
"I can't believe that sound is gas shooting into the air," said Joseph Sanders, who arrived at his home in the 1100 block of Wedgewood Road yesterday afternoon, only to be told by city firefighters that he wouldn't be allowed in. "It's like the slightest spark could set something off. Frankly, I don't mind not being allowed in my house."
Workers for Metra Industries, an arm of Spiniello Cos. of Fairfield, N.J., were replacing a 48-inch water-transmission line in the 1100 block of Cooks Lane when they struck the gas line about 1:30 p.m., said Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. spokeswoman Linda Foy.
No one was injured, but the evacuation inconvenienced residents of the 1000 and 1100 blocks of Cooks Lane and the 1100 block of Wedgewood Road.
BGE could not say when the leak would be repaired, and when people would be allowed to return to their homes - but it appeared most would not be allowed back until today.
Five people were taken to the Westside Skills Center at 4501 Edmondson Ave., which authorities set aside as a shelter for evacuees with no place to go during the emergency repairs.
Cooks Lane and a nearby connecting section of Security Boulevard were closed to traffic.
Last night, BGE crews were working to reduce the pressure of the gas main through a long series of valve changes and delicate maneuvering. Only then can they get close enough to assess damage to the line and go underground to repair it, Foy said.
"These happen sometimes, but the reason this is so serious is because of the magnitude of the leak," she said. "It's one of our largest mains. It's a major transmission line that feeds the distribution lines that ultimately lead to customers."
Foy said that it is unusual for a gas leak to ignite or explode, adding that BGE is investigating the cause of a small fire that resulted when a much smaller gas line was ruptured by a Comcast cable television crew near Pikesville on Sunday.
She said those areas more than 250 feet from the leak yesterday were in little danger of a gas explosion. All but one or two of the affected houses were located outside the 250-foot radius.
"We don't anticipate any problems when they return to their homes," Foy said.
Keith and Deborah Cox planned to spend the night at Keith's parents' house in Catonsville until they could return home.
Deborah Cox was babysitting seven children, including two of her own, enjoying the sun on her back porch when she heard a sound like gushing water. Then, she smelled gas. Minutes later, she said, firefighters were knocking on the door, and rushing them out of the house.
"I was panicked," she said. "I just wanted to make sure all the kids got out."
By the time her husband returned from his job at the Social Security Administration complex off Security Boulevard, he was told he couldn't return to the house to retrieve epilepsy medication.
"I just hope they let us back in soon," he said.
Medical needs and worries about pets kept many residents fearing the worst.
John and Sharon Harvey were relieved to be able to re-enter their Wedgewood Road home so that John Harvey could retrieve his insulin supply - but only after receiving permission from a Baltimore County firefighter, who acted as an escort.
"I guess if worse comes to worst, all the other things can be replaced," said John Harvey. "But I just need my insulin for the diabetes."
They were returning home from Sharon Harvey's job at a child care center when firefighters told them they wouldn't be able to go inside. They left frustrated, unsure whether to stay the night in a hotel and concerned about the cost of being forced from their homes.
"If this is an accident, then whoever did it needs to compensate the people who are inconvenienced," John Harvey said.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, who was briefed by authorities at the scene of the leak, confirmed that the contractors who broke the line worked for the city's Department of Public Works. He said he did not know what, if any, penalty might be assessed for the damage.
Later, an O'Malley spokeswoman said the city would investigate the matter to determine liability.
Metra Industries worked with BGE to guard against mistakes, said public works spokesman Kurt Kocher - even meeting with utility officials at the construction site Friday.
Kocher said the contractor also called Miss Utility, a nonprofit organization that regulates drilling and digging near gas and electrical lines, to confirm the position of the gas line. State law requires everyone, including homeowners, to call Miss Utility before digging.
"They went through all the proper processes, but the gas main still got hit," Kocher said. "We don't know how."
What to do in case of a gas leak
Leave the leak area immediately.
Gas can enter your building through walls even if you are not supplied with gas. Walk into the wind away from possible hazardous fumes.
Do not touch electric switches, thermostats or appliance controls. Do not use matches or lighters or anything that might cause a spark.
From a safe location, call 911 or Baltimore Gas & Eletric at 410-685-0123 or 1-800-685-0123.
Do not drive into a leak or vapor cloud area.