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Gas leak snarls traffic on I-75

Traffic crawls along I-75 north after the Bruce B. Downs interchange was shut down. Normal flow is expected today.

GEN YAMAGUCHI | Times

Traffic crawls along I-75 north after the Bruce B. Downs interchange was shut down. Normal flow is expected today.

TAMPA — Angel Chaves left home for work Monday at 3:45 p.m.

Forty-five minutes later, he'd driven less than 3 miles.

The worst part?

A road detour had brought him back where he started — two blocks from his apartment.

He and thousands of other motorists got caught up in a massive traffic snarl caused by the rupture of a natural gas line in the median of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard at Interstate 75.

Emergency officials, fearful that a stray cigarette or simple road friction might ignite a deadly fireball, shut down one of north Hillsborough County's busiest interchanges.

Traffic flow is expected to return to normal today.

Monday's fiasco began about 12:45 p.m., when a road grader leveling the earth for pavement tore into a 6-inch steel pipe containing pressurized natural gas. A large cloud quickly rose several feet and drifted southward.

Construction crews fled.

For 4 1/2 hours, a crew from Peoples Gas System worked to contain the leak as traffic backed up 7 to 8 miles in each direction of the interstate.

Workers located valves and stopped the gas flow by 5:30 p.m., and within 50 minutes, both I-75 and Bruce B. Downs roads were reopened.

It's unclear how much gas was lost in the break, but People Gas expects to measure the loss and charge the responsible subcontractor, said Lance Horton, a spokesman for Peoples Gas.

Sixteen commercial customers lost their gas service, Horton said.

Gas went out at Lee Roy Selmon's at about 5 p.m., said manager David Stevens.

"We're serving the little bit on the menu that we can, anything that does not require to be gas grilled," Stevens said before service was restored at 8:30 p.m.

North Tampa residents missed dinners, doctor appointments, work and meetings. Kids were late coming home from school. Parents were slow picking up their children.

"It's so frustrating," said Chaves, the security guard who ended up detoured back by his home. "I'm not only late for work, I'm wasting all this gas."

The gas line leak brought sweaty, angry, tired and hungry customers into the Shell Station on Cross Creek Boulevard where traffic was being diverted.

"Everybody, all day long, has been complaining," said cashier Eddie Basciano. "I feel like I'm stuck in it."

Bruce B. Downs is the main artery in and out of New Tampa and the quickest way for the northern part of New Tampa to get to the south side.

For instance, a person coming from the movie theater to Lowe's could make that drive in about three minutes via Bruce B. Downs, under the I-75 overpass. With that portion closed, the only other options are through Pasco County or down Morris Bridge Road, which can add 30 minutes to the drive — without traffic.

Friends and relatives called each other throughout the day, offering suggestions. Chris Choi, who spent an hour and 10 minutes trying to get home from the University of South Florida to Hunter's Green, called her son, who was driving home from King High School.

Drive through USF, up to Livingston, to County Line Road through Pasco County, up Bruce B. Downs, she instructed him.

At Family of Christ Christian School in Tampa Palms, director Jill Hale was trying to figure out a way to get a bus to Clark Elementary to pick up children to take to the church's after-school program.

Cut through USF, go up Fletcher Avenue to Morris Bridge, then down Morris Bridge, to Cross Creek — would that work, she wondered?

When school let out at Benito Middle School, the cafeteria filled up with students stranded without a bus.

Illianez Chaves, 28, waited outside for her children's school bus from Clark Elementary School, which normally arrives at 2:20 p.m. After about 10 minutes, she started to worry.

Chaves finally received an automated call from the school district on her cell phone. Her children were dropped off at 3 p.m.

Mauro Mermolia, 45, sat on Bruce B. Downs for 45 minutes trying to get home from work, which is only about 5 miles away. New Tampa's reliance on Bruce B. Downs because of the lack of options concerned him.

"If a hurricane were to hit, there's no way to leave," he said.

Basciano, the gas station clerk, said many of his customers said Bruce B. Downs needed to be widened.

"There was nowhere for them to go," he said. "Everyone just felt trapped."

Gas leak snarls traffic on I-75 09/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 10:25am]
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