Central firefighters work with Pacific Gas & Electric workers in securing the area around a massive natural gas leak at a construction site at Soquel and La Fonda avenues Tuesday in Live Oak. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula).
SANTA CRUZ — A massive natural gas leak has led to mandatory evacuations and road closures over a wide slice of Santa Cruz Tuesday. A construction worker operating a large piece of earth moving equipment struck a 6-inch gas line about 10 a.m. on Soquel Avenue near La Fonda Avenue.
The gash triggered a roar of escaping gas that forced the first arriving Central firefighters to shut down the heavily traveled Soquel Avenue in north and southbound directions for five hours.
No injuries were reported.
At first, only businesses near the rupture at 2250 Soquel Ave. were evacuated, while residents were told to stay in their homes. As the incident progressed and air tests were conducted, officials dramatically widened the evacuation area to include La Fonda Avenue, LifeSpring Preschool and Harbor High.
Sheriff’s deputies then went door to door along La Fonda Avenue conducting a forced evacuation. Emergency 9-1-1 dispatchers, through a reverse 911 call, contacted 275 neighbors near the leak to advise them of the forced evacuation and advisable evacuations.
Five businesses in the area also had to evacuate including the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the Harbor Veterinary Hospital.
Head veterinarian Kerrin Hoban said her staff was advised to leave after firefighters detected strong amounts of gas seeping into the clinic.
“We safely got 10 dogs and cats out,” Hoban said. “When I came to work at 10 a.m. I heard this loud hissing. A few minutes later there were firefighters out there dragging hoses around. We’re taking the animals to a safe spot. All of them are fine.”
Nearby, the LifeSpring Preschool, with about 60 children in attendance, also had to be evacuated. Many of the parents arrived with a hint of panic splashed across their faces. Some even ran to center before they were calmed by Sheriff’s deputies.
R-P staff photographer Tarmo Hannula was taking pictures of the La Fonda Avenue Bridge project when the rupture occurred. He said he heard a sound like rushing
water, like Niagra Falls.
“It was a roar,” Hannula said. “Then I heard the (police) scanner and sirens.”
At noon, PG&E Spokeswoman Monica Tell said PG&E crews were evaluating the situation and figuring out the best way to “squeeze off the line.”
The accident strangely tied in with the start of the major demolition of the nearby La Fonda Avenue Bridge removal about three blocks away. Early the same morning demolition got under way to remove half of the 1948 concrete bridge leading to the full closure of La Fonda Avenue at Highway 1. With the bridge now impassable emergency workers and those being evacuated were faced with a further headache of getting out of the area and accessing neighborhoods.
Traffic, meanwhile, swelled into a stalled nightmare along Soquel Avenue, Seventh Avenue, Capitola Road and surrounding surface roads, especially as the lunch hour neared.
Harbor High School, which flanks the disaster area, was fortunately out on summer break. Some activities at the school were halted and the campus was cleared out.
Pacific Gas and Electric had several crews at the scene right from the start of the leak but capping or crimping off the leak called for a specialized team with the right equipment. Adding greater stress to the ordeal, that PG&E team had to come from Salinas. They eventually capped the leak just before 3 p.m.
A lengthy cast of emergency workers flocked to the scene and transformed Soquel Avenue into a bustling staging area. Environmental Health, Caltrans, American Medical Response, about a dozen Central firefighters Monterey Bay Air Quality Control, The California Highway Patrol, at least a dozen Sheriff’s deputies, Public Works and the American Red Cross were present.
Red Cross workers set up an evacuation center at the Santa Cruz Bible Church.
By 2:50 p.m. the leak was completely shut down and residents were allowed to return home and businesses resumed normal hours.
All roads affected by the leak were reopened by 3:30 p.m.
“We want to remind customers and contractors working on sites to call 811 to avoid dig-ins like this,” Tell said.
Angela Edmond was the first parent to pick up her son Logan from LifeSpring Preschool around noon about a block from the leak. She said she was “very concernced” when the school called and told her about the evacuation. Three-and-a-half year old Logan had a different reaction.
“He’s very excited about all the fire trucks,” Edmond said. “For a 3-year-old this is exciting. For a mother, it’s terrifying.”
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