A 16” inch gas main spewing methane and other natural gases in Santa Monica has been sealed thanks to the teamwork of local residents and public and private agencies who united in an effort to avoid a catastrophe.
Santa Monica Fire Department Chief Bill Walker remembers receiving a 911 call on Thursday some time between 11:30 a.m. and noon and quickly sending out a response unit, which is typical for potential gas line ruptures and structure fires.
“We got on scene and pretty quickly realized that it was not a normal gas line; normally, we get maybe one inch or two inch line and it’s fairly common. But none of us had been on a 16-inch gas line rupture,” Walker said. “We pulled up to see the sewer lids, almost floating, and you know how heavy those sewer lids are, so it was a pretty good indicator that a lot of natural gas was flowing.”
Fire officials immediately went to work establishing a perimeter and requesting assistance from Southern California Gas Company and a number of other pertinent agencies. Walker noted the main goal was to ensure the safety of the neighborhoods in the area, so a few houses were forced to evacuate.
“We also started to try to get general information to the surrounding area. And obviously, because of the amount of gas, we were trying to ascertain how much gas was getting out and where it was … because we need to establish that we have a concentration that’s not a danger for flammability,” Walker said. “But it was over such a wide area that it was a challenge initially, so we had to get with Edison to get the power shut off to a larger area so we wouldn’t have any ignitions. If there were some pockets that had enough air-fuel mixture that would cause us a problem or start a fire.”
Workers and Fire Department teams would remain on-scene through the night. By the time the sun rose Friday, curious residents were spotted throughout the area, looking to take a video of the roaring gas pipes or find somebody with answers.
As she avoided the 3-feet deep, square holes that checkered the street, neighborhood resident Karen Paris said she heard power could be out for as long as a week before she found an on-site command center who said crews would continue working around the clock until the problem was resolved.
“There are multiple gas lines that feed into this one line, so they have to shut off every single one of them before they can repair that line,” Paris said less than 24-hours after the gas leak was first noticed. “And because that transformer is there (right above it), they’re afraid that if there’s a spark of any kind that the whole thing will blow.”
Other locals like Emily de Leeuw and Carrie Sedor were also spotted nearby trying to inform neighbors they could head to the Hampton hotel if they were worried about themselves or their families.
Sedor’s neighbors, who live feet away from the exposed line and transformer box, have since returned their home at home in “ground zero,” she said jokingly Friday when she shared her experiences throughout the last week.
As SoCalGas crews excavated mounds of earth beneath the asphalt throughout her neighborhood, Sedor said at the time she wasn’t bothered by the work happening outside of her driveway, but she was concerned that nobody knew what lines lay where under city streets.
“We’ve had everybody here, so it’s a big deal. This is a huge deal,” she said, detailing how she has welcomed the fire department and many other state and local officials into her home in recent days.
Walker agreed that the ruptured gas main was a complex issue that he hasn’t seen before in his career.
“The size is really uncommon. In fact, when I got on scene, I was talking to a group of probably eight or 10 of the folks from the gas company and I asked them if they’ve been in a situation like this and they all shook their heads no,” he said. “So, we’re on scene and not a single person has ever been on a 16-inch gas line rupture; and I’ve got a couple of fire officers out there with nearly 30 years of service who’ve never seen this so it’s a unique situation, and it’s probably not something that most people can recall off the top of their head of where these things are. There’s maps and stuff but my understanding is this line was put in in the 1930s… so all of this stuff is very old.”
Walker added the situation definitely had the potential to be a disaster, but teamwork prevented any injuries from occurring.
“Gas getting out has some real potential (to do damage). We saw it happen up in San Bruno years ago. And I remember when I was made aware that this wasn’t a normal gas line — it’s a 16-inch line that was ruptured — I started thinking, ‘oh my gosh, that’s a lot of gas, where is it going, how do we make sure everyone’s safe?’ But out of all the craziness of the last couple of years, I think we’ve gotten really good at working together as partners, and we share information, and we make effective plans.”
As he detailed how the gas company had to fly somebody in to complete the job, Walker thanked all involved parties for their patience, including neighbors who lost food in their fridges while they were forced to evacuate to the nearby hotel.
“It was all a partnership; whether it was a public agency or a private agency, everyone was kind of pulling the same direction. This was really a huge team effort,” Walker said. “We got good input from a lot of folks — some from the county, some from the gas company and other agencies — and I think that’s all important for the public to see that we’ve come a long way in working well together. Everyone has such a great attitude and was so helpful to the process that it ultimately went about as good as that incident was gonna go.”