Major gas leak affects 335 customers in Salem

MADELINE HUGHES/Staff photoSalem Fire Chief Larry Best, center, talks about the town’s response to a major gas leak Monday morning on South Broadway. Gas was shut off for 335 customers and not expected to be restored until well into the night.  

SALEM, N.H. — Gas company employees went door to door Monday night to restore service to 335 customers affected by a leak that morning.

An independent contractor working for the town struck a main gas line because it was not marked correctly, Municipal Services Director Roy Sorenson said.

South Broadway was closed between Main and Central streets after the construction crew hit the gas line while working in front of Drive Fitness, Deputy police Chief Joel Dolan reported about 9:30 a.m. The leak forced gas service to be shut off for 335 customers north of the Copper Door on Main Street.

The road was shut down for about two hours. Salem firefighters, police, municipal services workers and Unitil gas company worked at the scene while drivers were advised to seek an alternate route.

"In this instance, we were doing drainage work on a culvert," Sorenson said. "From the information we have currently from out in the field, we believe there was an error perhaps in the location mark-out, and no fault of the contractor at the time." 

The gas main was on the side of the road, instead of being in the middle of the road as marked, he said.

Officials held a press conference at 4 p.m. to update residents on when the leak would be fully repaired, which was expected to be about 6 p.m. Manual restoration of service would take eight to 12 hours from that time, they said.

"We are having the meters get shut off and repairs are occurring at roughly the same time," Unitil spokesman Alec O'Meara said.

Salem Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Emanuelson said that as of 10:30 p.m., the repair had been made and gas service was restored to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and Salem High School.

Gas company workers were working to restore gas to other customers, he said.

"Crews will be working all night," Emanuelson said.

Areas affected by the leak included Geremonty Drive, Main Street, North Broadway, Sally Sweet Way and South Broadway. Among those without gas were schools, the fire station headquarters, Town Hall and the senior center.

Many businesses were in the affected area, so crews will remain through Tuesday morning to ensure they can start the day with natural gas, O'Meara said. 

"Thankfully, the weather today is rather warm for a mid-January day, as hundreds of residents are without heat," Dolan said in a statement before the press conference. "However, the cold still poses a concern for many, and we encourage everyone to check in on those who are ill or elderly and may need assistance."

As of Monday night, there were no plans to open a shelter because of the temperature and the time of restoration, but anyone experiencing heating issues should call the Fire Department, Chief Larry Best said.

Officials were alerted to the gas leak because a police officer was overseeing the work, Dolan said. After news of the leak, town officials opened up the Emergency Operations Center at the Main Street fire station to open up communication with all municipal departments involved, Best explained.

Unitil said in its statement earlier in the day that gas service was cut off about 11:30 a.m. "in order to make the area safe and begin repairs."

Unitil technicians went door to door to make sure all affected meters were turned off, according to the company.

People were urged to call the company's emergency line if they smelled gas in their home or business.

"Residents are urged to evacuate if they smell gas," Best said. "If you think you may have a leak, do not try to turn off your gas service yourself and do not turn on any electric devices. Call for help, and wait for a professional to respond to your home."

Additional gas service technicians were brought in from Unitil's Maine and Massachusetts operations. Sixteen technicians were working through the night, O'Meara said.

Natural gas leaks are usually recognized by smell, sight or sound.

Unitil warned residents not to use a lighter or telephones, switch on/off appliances, light fixtures or even a flashlight in any area where gas is detected since those items could spark a fire.

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