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Gas leak causes seven evacuations

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Students, faculty and staff were evacuated from seven buildings Monday afternoon as the smell of gas filtered through the air from a leak near the Hesburgh Library.

The gas leak occurred at 1:40 p.m. on St. Joseph’s Drive near the Library when a crew on the road repairing a broken water line struck a 4-inch gas line with a backhoe. The gas moved southwest and at approximately 2 p.m., Stepan Chemistry Hall, O’Shaughnessy Hall, Nieuwland Science Hall, the Radiation Laboratory, Malloy Hall, the Riley Hall of Arts and Design and Decio Hall were all evacuated.

The water line break was discovered Monday morning, said Director of Utilities Paul Kempf. After lunchtime, a crew arrived to fix the break and while they were attempting to fix it, hit a gas line.

“The gas main was not where it was purported to be,” Kempf said, according to the preparatory evaluation the crew made of the area. When the gas line was punctured, University officials immediately called the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) to repair it. The gas distribution system on campus belongs to NIPSCO, he said.

For about two hours, gas streamed up into the air in large amounts from a small area between Stepan Chemistry Hall, the Radiation Laboratory and the Hesburgh Library.

People inside were told to leave the buildings and then shortly afterward told to leave the area. Students in class and professors in their offices streamed out of the buildings and then walked away from the area that was soon blocked off with caution tape.

The buildings were evacuated as a precautionary measure, Kempf said.

“Just because you can smell the gas doesn’t mean there is a great concentration of it, he said. “If we can smell the gas, we typically will evacuate people out.”

Notre Dame Security/Police (NDSP) blocked off entry to the space between O’Shaughnessy, Malloy and Decio Halls and between the Radiation building and Stepan Chemistry Hall. They blocked off this area to keep people out of spaces where the concentration of the gas may be higher, Kempf said.

In circumstances like this, said Associate Director Phil Johnson, NDSP evaluates the particular circumstances and then chooses a course of action.

“In an emergency response we take the measures that we think are necessary to protect the public safety,” Johnson said.

While the buildings were being evacuated, NIPSCO could not find the valves to turn the gas off, so instead they exposed undamaged sections of the line and squeezed the gas line together to shut it off. It takes time to do either method, so the amount of time it took NIPSCO to repair the leak was not unusual, Kempf said.

At 3:25 p.m. NIPSCO was able to put a clamp on the pipe and the leak “dissipated substantially at that time,” said Dennis Brown, assistant vice president for News and Information.

There were no injuries as a result of the incident. Notre Dame Associate Director for News and Information Don Wycliff said the gas was “not harmful” to anyone, but people were being evacuated from nearby buildings as a precautionary measure.

“This is natural gas, like you would use in your home. Outside, there are no harmful effects from breathing it, as long as we keep a safe distance away from the rupture. There have been no complaints of ill effects as of yet,” he said.

Fire alarms were turned on to evacuate people from the buildings, including Stepan Chemistry Hall, where graduate student Brian Wilson was at the time of the leak.

“People went outside, but when the alarms stopped, we went back in,” Wilson said. “Then we smelled the gas, and left the building again.”

Faculty, staff and students who were in the buildings when they were evacuated were allowed to re-enter later in the afternoon to obtain items they had left behind. As of approximately 5 p.m., the seven buildings were available for use.

The buildings are expected to be fully reopen Tuesday. There should be no odor of gas remaining in the buildings, Kempf said. When the gas leak was occurring, the fans in the building were quickly turned off so outside air would not circulate in.

NIPSCO went through each building after the leak was contained and tested the air for traces of gas, Kempf said. Only Stepan Chemistry hall had very low traces at the time.

John-Paul Witt contributed to this report.