A sudden gas crisis

Gas leak pops manhole covers and snarls downtown traffic as major routes close

October 27, 2006|By Nicole Fuller and Gus Sentementes | Nicole Fuller and Gus Sentementes,SUN REPORTERS

Gas leaked into the air and two manhole covers popped loose after a natural gas main that runs beneath the heart of downtown Baltimore ruptured in two places yesterday - forcing the closure of major thoroughfares during the afternoon and evening rush hour and causing a major headache for commuters.

The closed streets - Lombard and Charles - partially reopened last night. But some lanes will remained blocked this morning as BGE crews make repairs, officials said, raising the prospect of another problematic rush hour.

Yesterday, the city's 911 center was flooded with cellular phone calls about 2:30 p.m., reporting a possible gas explosion at Charles and Lombard streets, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department. No one was injured.

Two of downtown's main arteries were closed during the height of rush hour - Charles Street from Pratt to Redwood streets and Lombard Street from Hanover to St. Paul streets - as a hazardous-materials team from the Fire Department, technicians from BGE and the Maryland Department of the Environment descended on the scene. A city Police Department helicopter flew overhead.

The city Department of Transportation dispatched 17 traffic officers to try to keep vehicles moving and used variable message signs posted around the the closures alerting drivers to avoid the area, said David Brown, a spokesman for the department.

Traffic traveling east and west was diverted to Baltimore and Orleans streets. Northbound traffic was diverted to Gay Street.

Yolanda Chambers got stuck in traffic for more than an hour as she tried to pick up her daughter from Francis Scott Key Middle School in Locust Point.

"It's horrific," she said as she idled at a traffic light at Lombard and Light streets.

Technicians from BGE, which maintains the 20-inch gas main running along Charles Street, discovered the location of the leaks at Charles and Pratt streets and Charles and Lombard streets last night. "We're in the process of digging up the street in those two areas to get into the ground and get a close-up look at the leak and make repairs," Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE said last night.

Foy could not say what caused the leaks.

Tests conducted by the Maryland Department of the Environment found the presence of "low levels of natural gas," Foy said.

Fire officials, who arrived first on the scene, found "minimal levels of natural gas and methane gas" in the area using hand-held meters, Cartwright said.

Yesterday's incident recalled a 2001 manhole cover explosion in downtown Baltimore, which state officials ruled, was caused when a CSX Corp. train derailed under Howard Street and allowed a flammable chemical - tripropylene - to enter the city's storm drains. CSX paid $100,000 to pump the chemical out of the storm drains, but didn't accept responsibility for the accident.

Last night, about 800 people were expected to attend the University of Maryland Baltimore's Founder's Day Gala, a black-tie event at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore on Light Street across from the Inner Harbor, but by 7 p.m. - an hour after it began - hundreds of guests had not arrived.

Organizers, and guests alike, were convinced that the street closures were the culprit.

As men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns sipped wine and awaited the arrival of honorees such as former Sen. Joseph Tydings - the oppressive traffic dominated conversation.

"Baltimore rush-hour traffic is always difficult," said Tracy Boyd, of the university's events planning department. "The delays are good. They've given us some staggered entry. But it's thrown us off for the rest of the evening."

Some avoided the traffic all together.

Rod J. Rosenstein, Baltimore's U.S. attorney, came to the Hyatt for the gala, from his office in the nearby federal building.

"I just walked over here, " Rosenstein said.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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