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Gas leak disrupts traffic, plans

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

A plume of explosive natural gas causes evacuations of nearby residents and rerouting of traffic from Ulmerton Road, but no injuries.

It was supposed to be a quick dash into the Pinellas County Health Department to pick up some paperwork Friday, but Josina Lynch ended up sitting in a bus for more than an hour.

She and about 50 other people were evacuated from the health department at Ulmerton Road and 130th Avenue N after a construction crew punctured a natural gas line outside the building. About 15 residents of the nearby Rainbow Village housing complex also were evacuated as a precaution.

"I wasn't afraid or anything, but it made me late," said Lynch of Largo. "It was just bothersome. I was standing at the counter when they came in and told us we had leave right away."

All six lanes of Ulmerton Road, one of the county's busiest east-west streets, were closed from about 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Traffic was detoured at 125th Street to Walsingham Road and at 119th Street to 134th Avenue, creating some delays at each location.

The road closures and evacuations were necessary because natural gas is explosive, said Largo Deputy Fire Chief Tom Tarulli. The gas does not pose a respiratory problem.

"It was quite dangerous because it can explode," Tarulli said. "It's a gas line that's fed from two directions, and it was a lot of gas. There was a large plume and odor, but natural gas rises quickly and dissipates. They were real lucky."

Lynch, 17, did not know what firefighters were concerned about until Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses were brought to the street where people evacuated were waiting. The two air-conditioned buses were provided as temporary shelters because of the heat.

"We were all sweating out there in the sun," she said. "Then they loaded us up because there was a gas leak."

Professional Services Industries, a private contractor, was drilling on the road shoulder at 130th Avenue and Ulmerton and punctured the gas line. An employee for the company said the crew was doing drainage work, but refused further comment.

The hole the construction crew dug was just feet away from a yellow marker warning of a nearby natural gas line.

"The hole is pretty much right where the line is, just like the marker says it is," said Tom Sewell, director of operations for Clearwater Gas Systems, adding that the city-owned agency will try to file a claim to recoup costs for the ruptured pipe.

Gas system employees capped the broken line on either side of the hole to stop the leak. Sewell said the line has a pressure of 60 pounds per square inch and serves customers north of Ulmerton, but no one was without gas service after the pipe was capped. He did not have an estimate of the number of people served by the line.

Tricia Woods, 19, was in one of the Rainbow Village apartments that was evacuated. She said she was asleep when someone banged on the door.

"I looked out, and there were guys in uniforms running around telling people they had to evacuate," she said. "I got dressed in a hurry, I'll tell you. Nobody knew what was going on at first. It was sort of scary."