While most area residents were taking great pains to stay inside last weekend — well away from temperatures in the teens, wind chills near 0, and side streets that resembled ice-skating rinks more than byways — more than two dozen firefighters, paramedics and fire police spent hours in the freezing cold in support of their mission of public safety.
They got the call around 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 23, with the report of a gas leak on Evergreen Street in South Bethany, just off Coastal Highway. Upon arriving at the scene, crews learned that the initial problem had started with a water main break.
According to Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Department (BBVFD) Capt. Brian McConlogue, crews from Artesian Water Company had responded to the reported water main break and attempted to find the appropriate underground valve to shut off the water. During the process of locating that valve, they struck and ruptured what appeared to be the main 6-inch line bringing gas to South Bethany, he said.
At that point, the BBVFD crews were called out to assist with safety measures related to the gas leak. They sprayed water over the area in an effort to dissipate the resulting gas cloud and minimize risk of an explosion or fire, while representatives of Chesapeake Utilities were called out to assess the problem and repair it.
Gas service to homes in South Bethany was not interrupted.
Nearby trees and bushes — already glazed with a thin veneer of snow and ice — took on an even more wintery appearance, with a heavy coat of ice several inches thick resulting from the water spray.
The fire department was forced to use its pumper trucks for a water source, rather than a fire hydrant. The crews were stationed to the north of the rupture, according to BBVFD Chief Rick Parrett, to avoid their breathing any gas fumes carried by the stiff breeze toward the south.
Trucks and crews from the Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company were called in to assist with the incident, providing an additional water supply and allowing the various crews to be spelled from their long wait in the cold while the incident was handled.
An ambulance crew from the Millville Volunteer Fire Company was also called to the scene, providing the fire crews with a warm refuge from the cold, as well as emergency medical backup. The firefighters worked in shifts, each taking a warmth break in the ambulance before spelling their colleagues outside.
Cold and the potential for combustion weren’t the only hazards on the scene Sunday. The emergency workers spread numerous bags of cat litter along the South Bethany street (behind the McDonald’s restaurant) that served as their command post, providing traction on an otherwise slick surface. (McDonald’s was, however, closed and not able to provide even a cup of hot coffee for the firefighters.)
Repair crews and a representative from Chesapeake Utilities arrived around 5 p.m. to assess the situation and mend the gas line rupture. A backhoe was brought in to dig up the area for that assessment and repair. Fire crews anticipated at least another hour in the cold before they would be able to leave the scene, bringing their total time outside to nearly four hours. No injuries were reported.