Gas leak closes roads for repairs

Commuters will have to work their way around Walton Way Extension between Wheeler and Jackson roads this morning, and maybe for several mornings to come.

Natural gas billowing from a ruptured pipeline was sealed off Wednesday, but traffic delays will continue as crews repair the asphalt after the two-hour leak.

"They hope to have (the road) open in the very near future, but they're scared to put a time frame on it," said Battalion Chief John Sheridan, of the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department. "We like the roadways to be clear and people going about their business, but we just don't know."

A construction contractor, Cable Connector Utilities, punctured the gas line while working on a horizontal bore project in front of First Baptist Church, Sheridan said. Boring is a method of drilling casings underground for utilities to pass through cable lines.

Normally, contracting companies use horizontal boring because it allows traffic to continue while workers drill under the asphalt with minimal excavation.

The natural gas, which is normally invisible, rose Wednesday looking like clouds of smoke as it carried dirt and asphalt into the air.

"The gas was forcing the ground under that road into the atmosphere," Sheridan said.

He said that because the rupture was an accident, the company will not face fines or charges for the leak but will be financially responsible for the repairs of the road.

Firefighters evacuated the buildings around the leak as a precaution in case it sparked a fire.

Laura Linn was working in her office at Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta when a firefighter asked her and her co-workers to leave the building.

"My office is in the back, and I saw a big cloud coming across and I thought it was a dust storm," she said.

Linn grabbed a cup of coffee from the office coffee machine and waited for the clearance.

"I wasn't in that big of a hurry," she said. "I still thought to grab my coffee."

Office workers were stranded at the site for almost two hours as the fire department asked people not to move their cars or start the engines until the leak was contained.

Sheridan said that could have been what prevented the leak from turning into an explosion.

"(The leak) had the gas, the volume of gas, the air was there -- it just could not find an ignition source," he said. "Had it found an ignition source, we could have had a fire."

Two cars sat in the middle of the gas leak after two motorists abandoned them after driving straight into the cloud and realizing it was a gas leak.

Firefighters had to douse the cars with water to disperse the gas, and they were thankful the engines didn't turn the gas leak into an explosion.

"Some (drivers) just ride down the road looking to see what's going on in the road ahead of them," Sheridan said. "People do it, and people lose their lives."