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Tent stake ruptures downtown gas line

August 11, 2010 - Celebrate Oxford almost ended with a big bang this year thanks to a natural gas line that got ruptured by a tent stake.

Firefighters were called to the downtown area at 6:48 p.m. Saturday in response to a gas leak that led to the evacuation of a local restaurant and a partial shutdown of M-24.

Apparently, when workers erected the Oxford Chamber of Commerce Business Expo tent on E. Burdick St., they drove a metal stake into the ground near the curb and punctured a 2-inch gas line. The line was located about 18 inches below ground.

"It was there all day, leaking, and nobody could really smell much," explained Oxford Fire Chief Pete Scholz. "But when they went to take the tent down, they wiggled the stake to pull it out of the ground and that's what caused it to open up."

The stake was placed by employees of the tent rental company, not the village Department of Public Works.

All of the Celebrate Oxford activities along E. Burdick St. had already concluded for the day when the leak was discovered and firefighters were called.

Scholz said not much gas escaped into the air. Most of it stayed underground.

"Gas goes underground a lot of times. It doesn't always vent to the air," the chief explained.

Unfortunately, the gas filled the basement of Wireless Toyz, then got into Great Lakes Mercantile next store.

"They had quite a bit of gas in there," Scholz noted.

Because it's located next to these two buildings, popular downtown eatery Victoria's Delights was evacuated as a precaution.

It was full of customers at the time, both regulars and out-of-town visitors here for Celebrate Oxford.

"We were packed. We had a line for tables," said owner Victoria Connolly. "Saturday's my busiest night."

Downtown's stretch of M-24 was also closed to prevent the possibility of a vehicle acting as a source of ignition for the gas, Scholz noted.

When Consumers Energy workers arrived on scene, they shut off the gas, dug up the line and repaired it.

"I'm pretty sure Consumers is going to send a bill to somebody, either the tent company or the DDA," Scholz noted.

Firefighters opened doors and used large fans to air out of the gas-filled buildings.

In retrospect, things could have been a whole lot worse. Scholz recalled the 1992 explosion that leveled a two-story building in downtown Rochester.

Workers in that case broke a line outside, causing a nearby building to fill with gas and explode.

"It was the exact same kind of a thing," Scholz said.

The chief indicated the tent rental company obviously did not call MISS DIG System Inc. as everyone should do before they start a project that involves digging or driving things into the ground.

"Technically, if you're driving anything into the ground, you should always check first," Scholz said. "Anytime you do any digging at all, you should always call ahead of time just to be sure that there are no buried utilities."

MISS DIG is a statewide excavation safety and utility damage-prevention company that's been around since 1970.

One toll-free call is all it takes to have MISS DIG notify its more than 900 participating members in order to have them stake their underground utility lines and provide overhead electric line assistance to ensure adequate clearances are maintained.

"It's a word to the wise for even homeowners," Scholz said. "Whenever you're doing any digging around the house, like putting a deck in or fence posts, you should always call. It's a free service."

Homeowners or excavators can call MISS DIG at 1-800-482-7171 or 8-1-1 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Unfortunately, the gas leak hit Connolly right in the pocketbook.

She estimated she lost about $1,000 in product, extra labor for cleanup the next day, unpaid dinner checks, and potential sales that never happened because she was forced to close early.

She also lost the opportunity to expose many out-of-town visitors to her quaint eatery and its delectable cuisine.

Despite her losses, Connolly completely understands why the restaurant had to be closed for safety reasons. "You can't take a chance like that," she said.

In the end, Connolly's trying to look on the bright side of things.

"I guess, in the long run, we're lucky we didn't blow up," she said. "I think the police and fire (departments) did a great job by responding so fast and not causing a huge panic."

She was also pleased that many of her loyal customers have either stopped by to pay their checks or phoned in their credit card numbers.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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