Natural gas leak wreaks havoc along Washington Avenue

by Bryan Keogh

Campus traffic along Washington Avenue was brought to a standstill yesterday morning as a pungent natural gas odor filtered through the nostrils of nearby pedestrians.
At about 8:50 a.m., a Carl Bolander and Sons Co. backhoe struck a gas main near the northeast corner of Jackson Hall. Construction crews were cleaning up debris in the demolition sites of Owre and Millard halls and Lyons Labs.
Emergency operators evacuated a three-block area to protect students and faculty from the volatile, gaseous air surrounding the ruptured main.
Minneapolis and University police kept the street closed for more than an hour before normal traffic resumed. Areas of Washington Avenue between Church and Harvard streets were affected.
Craig Moody, assistant director of the University’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety, said the operator was not aware of the gas main’s existence.
Unsure of who was at fault, officials are still sorting out whether the proper information was communicated, Moody said.
Workers from Minnegasco arrived at 9:06 a.m. and began searching for a place to shut off the gas, which was difficult to locate. The gas was turned off at 9:50 a.m., allowing students to return to the sidewalk on the south side of Amundson Hall.
“We didn’t know that the construction crew was there,” said Patty Pederson, a Minnegasco spokeswoman.
According to construction workers on site, the valves controlling flow through the pipes underneath Millard Hall were supposed to be turned off.
“Someone forgot to turn off all of the utilities,” said Deputy Fire Chief McCary Mitchell.”
A perimeter was set up around the affected areas as University officials, police officers and firefighters frantically waved passersby and gawkers away. Amundson and Jackson halls and the Mayo Memorial Building were all evacuated.
“I wanted to catch a bus, but a guy said, ‘There is a gas leak, get away,'” said College of Liberal Arts student Katie Brown.
Three fire trucks arrived on the scene shortly after construction workers noticed the broken gas main. Thursday’s weather conditions contributed to keeping the gas concentration levels low, giving Minnegasco workers time to contain the rupture.
“Because of the high velocity of the wind, the gas spread quickly,” Mitchell said.
Despite the obvious effects of such potential disasters as Thursday’s leak, University Emergency Management Deputy Director Judson Freed is confident of the campus’ safety.
A similar gas leak occurred on July 19 when a construction worker digging holes for posts ruptured a gas line between Cooke Hall and the Civil Engineering Building.
“If you look at the statistics, you will find that we are incredibly safe,” Freed said. “No one has been injured in the gas leaks.”
Bryan Keogh welcomes comments at [email protected]