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Gas leak prompts highway closing; Hotels, townhouses evacuated, traffic detoured after break


Construction workers grading a parking lot in Maryland City accidentally ruptured a six-inch gas main yesterday, forcing emergency workers to shut down Route 198 during the morning rush hour and evacuate about 30 people from a hotel and nearby townhouses.

Anne Arundel County police closed Route 198 from Whiskey Bottom Road to Russett Green West and rerouted traffic around the gas leak onto local streets, causing delays of 2 1/2 hours.

Three children at Maryland City Elementary School were treated for minor ailments -- a stomachache, a nosebleed and asthma -- that might have been related to the gas fumes, said Capt. John Scholz, spokesman for Anne Arundel County EMS Fire/Rescue.

The gas did not ignite, but the threat of explosion was great enough that firefighters shut off the electricity in the Red Carpet Inn on Route 198 to avoid a spark, Scholz said.

"I would never want to downplay the danger of a large natural gas leak in an area as densely populated as this," Scholz said while gas streamed from the broken pipe.

"We've evacuated the local residents and removed all the ignition sources from the area."

A backhoe operator grading land between the Holiday Inn and Red Carpet Inn west of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway cut through a half-inch-thick plastic gas pipe about 8: 34 a.m., officials said.

Windows shattered

Gas escaped with such force that it blew nearby dirt and rocks 60 feet, shattering four windows at the Red Carpet Inn. The gas that gushed through the 10-inch-long gash roared like a train, Scholz said.

Within two hours, two truckloads of technicians from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. were working to stop the leak.

Workers dug a hole about 30 yards away from the rupture to pinch the pipe, stopping the gas flow in one direction, and closed a valve to halt the gas flow from the other side, said Craig Herwig, a repair supervisor who was sent to shut off the gas.

Six firetrucks and about 20 firefighters helped direct motorists away from nearby gas stations, shut down electricity at the Red Carpet Inn, and evacuate the hotel's guests and residents along Otter Creek Road in the village of Russett, officials said. The townhouses were 600 feet from the rupture.

Wind helped

The fire department's efforts to prevent an explosion were helped by winds that blew fumes east along Route 198, as far as the Wal-Mart a half-mile away, Scholz said. It also helped lift and dissipate the gas.

Had the weather been humid or less windy, Scholz said, dangerous gas pockets might have formed around the rupture or in the nearby townhouses.

While it is not uncommon for construction workers to break small gas lines, rupturing a 6-inch gas main is rare and very dangerous, Scholz said.

A typical residential line carries gas at about one-quarter-pound of pressure per square inch, said Herwig, the repair supervisor.

The ruptured main carried 100 pounds of pressure per square inch -- enough to throw a man across a room.

Markings off

Martin Hill, president of the landscaping company that was grading the land for a parking lot, said he had paid a locater company to mark the sites of gas lines and other underground hazards, but the markings were off.

The fluorescent-orange arrow and other markings spray-painted on a curbside in the Red Carpet Inn parking lot indicated that the gas line ran parallel to the curb, 22 feet away, Hill said.

But the pipe was about 5 feet closer than shown, he said.

BGE spokeswoman Jessica Brown said the company is investigating who is responsible for the accident -- Hill's company or the locater who marked the site -- to determine who will pay for the gas lost in the leak and the cost of repairs.

Those costs have not been calculated, she said.

Pub Date: 1/08/99

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