MOUNT CARMEL — Mount Carmel City Hall was evacuated Wednesday morning and remained closed all day while there was a search-and-repair effort for a natural gas leak that firefighters said posed a serious threat of an explosion.
A Mount Carmel employee actually reported a gas odor at City Hall to the Hawkins County Gas Utility at the end of business hours Tuesday. Fire Chief Chris Jones said gas company personnel indicated that the gas level was not a threat at that time and they intended on addressing the leak Wednesday.
But when the first employee arrived at City Hall Wednesday around 7:40 a.m. there was a very strong odor of natural gas.
Jones said he took readings in and around City Hall, and his gauge indicated high levels of gas — enough to possibly even explode.
“I don’t think a lit cigarette would have been hot enough to ignite it, but a match could have,” Jones said.
Mount Carmel City Hall, located at the intersection of Main Street and Hammond Avenue, contains municipal offices and the post office on the ground floor, and the Senior Center on the second level.
The entire building was immediately evacuated Wednesday morning, as was the public library located in a separate building in the rear parking lot.
Although the odor of gas was strong on the ground level, Jones said it hadn’t made it up to the second level by the time the evacuation was ordered.
There was a handful of people at the Senior Center by that time, but no ill effects of the gas were reported.
Natural gas had filled the storm drain system and was emanating from the drains. Jones said one drain located near a City Hall entrance had allowed the gas into the building.
“We checked it with monitors and determined that the LEL, which is the lower explosive limits, was strong enough to constitute evacuating the area,” Jones said. “Since we did have lower explosive limit readings, and they were pretty high, we went ahead and quarantined the area. The possibility for an ignition was serious.”
At one point the city block was evacuated from the Dairy Cup restaurant east on Main Street to Volunteer Collision, and on Hammond Avenue from Highway 11-W north to Cherry Street.
After the storm drain and building were ventilated to eliminate the possibility of explosion, the detour was limited to the immediate intersection area.
Gas utility personnel arrived on the scene and began digging, looking for the leak. The intersection was blocked off, traffic detoured, and City Hall employees were sent home as the gas company searched.
By midmorning their day had gone from bad to worse.
While searching for the leak, workers accidentally cut City Hall’s underground telephone lines.
“That was definitely an ‘oops,’” Jones said. “Right now we’ve got no telephone service in City Hall, the post office or the Senior Center, and probably not even the library.”
Then, in a completely unrelated mishap, a First Utility District water line burst about 50 feet from City Hall and began spilling toward the area where the gas company was digging.
Workers were able to use dirt from the digging to divert the water into a storm drain, but it created a “muddy mess” in the street, Jones said.
Eventually the gas leak was found coming from a bad weld on the line about five feet into Hammond Avenue. The gas leak was attributed to an aging pipe, as was the water leak.
A FUD crew repaired the water line, and by nightfall an Embarq crew was attempting to repair the telephone lines. City Hall will be open today, although Jones said it was likely that City Hall’s phone system wouldn’t be back up until sometime during the day.