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Gas leak causes building evacuations, closure of university campus

By , | Posted - Mar 24th, 2009 @ 10:05pm


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SALT LAKE CITY -- A natural gas leak near 1500 East and 500 South in Salt Lake City caused the closure of the University of Utah campus Tuesday afternoon, and several buildings in the area had to evacuate.

University of Utah evacuation

The campus has now been reopened, meaning students are able to return to their dorms and employees are able to come back and get the cars they were forced to leave earlier. The only real change is that night classes and the university have been canceled.

Earlier Tuesday afternoon, when thousands were being evacuated from the school, the scene was much more chaotic.

There were police officers at intersections, directing massive amounts of traffics away from the gas leak. Emergency workers were calling it the "hot zone," telling people near the leak to walk away on foot as quickly as possible and that they couldn't drive away because it wasn't safe to start their cars.

"I was actually just leaving class; and as I was leaving, they were telling everyone they need to evacuate the buildings," student Shawn Young said.

Another student told us, "We could smell the gas as we walked through the area; kinda gave us a headache."

Part of the reason for the widespread evacuation was that officials were worried the gas had gotten into the sewer system. Crews removed manhole covers to try and ventilate the system.

There was also brief discussion about evacuating the VA Hospital. Emergency dispatchers were starting to locate all available ambulances and UTA buses to move 120 patients, but that evacuation was called off as crews got things under control.

Students and children evacuated

In addition to the University of Utah, Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School, the Carmen B. Pingree Center for Autsim and a Kindercare Learning Center were also evacuated.

The bulk of the students from the Pingree Center were bused home as scheduled. The pre-school students, along with the children from Kindercare, were taken to the East High School auditorium, where their parents were instructed to pick them up.

According to the Rowland Hall-St. Mark's Web site, the McCarthey campus was evacuated and all students were moved to the upper school campus where they were picked up by their parents.

Impact on TRAX

The gas leak also caused delays for TRAX riders. Eastbound TRAX was stopped at Rice-Eccles Stadium and riders were instructed to use a temporary bus bridge to get to their destination. That line is now open and running on its regular schedule.

Cause of the gas leak

A construction crew was installing an underground fiber-optic line in the area and hit a natural gas line shortly before 2 p.m.

The construction worker who punctured the gas line told KSL there must have been some type of miscommunication, because he didn't even know there was a gas line there.

Wade Reece, who works for Down Under Construction, says the company that locates gas lines for Questar, ELM Locating, never showed up even though the work was scheduled.

"[The line] was blown out. The grass was waving, and it lifted the asphalt. I mean, it was a big hit," Reese said.

Crews were able to cap off the leak roughly two hours later. Questar says it plans to investigate Reese's claims.

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Story compiled with contributions from Sarah Dallof, Richard Piatt,Whit Johnson and Marc Giauque.

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