AUGUSTA — Downtown Augusta was back open for business Friday afternoon, several hours after a ruptured gas line forced an evacuation in the heart of the downtown area on Valentine’s Day.

Around 9:30 a.m., a Greater Augusta Utilities District worker trying to remove a piece of pavement struck a natural gas line with the bucket of a backhoe. That caused the line to spew natural gas into the air, according to Brian Tarbuck, general manager of the Greater Augusta Utility District.

The line was struck as workers were finishing up repairs to a water main break that was reported around 1 a.m.

That incident, in the middle of the ramp between Front and Water streets in the heart of the downtown Augusta, prompted authorities to evacuate the nearby Olde Federal Building and the 283 Water St. building that houses Otto’s on the River restaurant, Dowtown Yoga and other businesses. That closure for much of the day shut down most of downtown Water Street, from Hartford Fire Station to Bridge Street, according to Fire Chief Roger Audette. Front and Commercial streets were also closed to traffic.

No injuries were reported, water was restored Friday morning and the gas line was repaired by around 1 p.m.

Audette said some people who were evacuated due to the leak on the brutally cold day — temperatures hovered in the single digits — took shelter at Hartford Fire Station until they could return to their buildings.

He said authorities immediately closed much of Water Street to the public until the leak was repaired by Summit Natural Gas workers.

“This was the real deal, an active leak,” Audette said. “Fortunately, unlike propane, natural gas is lighter than air so it typically goes straight up into the sky.”

The street closure meant businesses there had a quiet Valentine’s Day, until the street was opened back up Friday afternoon.

“Most merchants made the best of it, and displayed amazing patience during the process,” said Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance. “I think when it comes down to it, we all recognize that the safety of our customers and visitors is imperative above all else.”

Tarbuck said the Greater Augusta Utility District had a water main break at the site around 1 a.m. The leak was fixed, but not before high-pressure water had eroded some of the ground around it. That widened the original hole and exposed other underground infrastructure, leaving some chunks of pavement unsupported by dirt.

Augusta Fire Department and Summit Natural Gas employees work Friday at the scene of a gas leak at corner of Water and Winthrop streets. The road was shut down for repairs. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

A backhoe operator with 20 years experience tried to remove some pavement that appeared to have fallen onto a gas line, and he subsequently nicked the gas line, causing the leak. Tarbuck said the worker has never hit a gas line or, as far as he could recall, even made a mistake before.

“It’s been a long day, our guys have been out there since 1 a.m. and it’s super cold,” Tarbuck said late Friday afternoon. “We knew so many of those restaurants wanted to be open, selling dinners to couples, and we were trying to do everything right, and it didn’t work out as planned. It was a really frustrating day for everyone. We wish none of it had happened. The guys feel bad. But nobody got hurt, that was the big thing.

“It was a close call, a near miss thing,” Tarbuck continued. “You take it back and review it with your guys and say, ‘How can we do this better?’ We will double down on our efforts to work smarter and safer.”

Hall, of the downtown alliance, said downtown was open for business and encouraged people to come out Friday night.

“Valentine’s Day is a very big day for our restaurants and retailers,” Hall said. “It’s unfortunate that our morning and early afternoon hours were disrupted, but as soon as the roads reopened, the customers returned. I think it speaks volumes to the kind of loyalty we’ve been able to cultivate here. These are business owners who put their entire heart and soul into their businesses, so please don’t miss an opportunity to show them love by supporting their establishments.”

Audette said the incident was reported to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, by Summit and GAUD officials, and the PUC had a representative onsite to make sure the fix was up to standards.

Both Summit and Maine Natural Gas workers responded to the report of a leak, until it was determined the broken line was a Summit line.

He said people in some downtown buildings reported smelling gas but testing indicated no gas was present.

Traffic was routed around the street by Augusta police and firefighters.

“Traffic was messed up for quite some time. When you close the heart of your city, you get people curious who want to see what’s going on,” Audette said Friday. “We’re just happy that downtown Augusta is open for Valentine’s Day tonight.”

 

Managing Editor Scott Monroe contributed to this report.


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