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Propane leak drives hundreds from homes on Long Island

A leak in a large propane gas tank at a suburban shopping center forced residents out of 900 homes before dawn on New Year's Day and shut down a swath of roads and railroad service for hours on eastern Long Island.

The leak in the 30,000-gallon underground tank was fixed at around 3 p.m. Saturday, about 14 hours after a propane delivery driver discovered it. But it wasn't clear how long it would take for residents to be allowed back home.

Authorities planned to take propane readings at each home to make sure it was safe for residents to return, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said. The first readings showed very low levels of propane in homes near the leak, officials said.

While no one was hurt by the gas, safety concerns spurred authorities to clear out a one-mile-square area in Shirley and Mastic, communities about 50 miles east of New York City. Hundreds of evacuees spent part of the holiday in relatives' homes, in local diners and at a high school opened as an emergency shelter.

Stretches of the Sunrise Highway, Montauk Highway and some other major thoroughfares were closed in the area, and the Long Island Rail Road replaced trains with buses in the area for about 11 hours. Some 40 fire and ambulance departments and a host of other agencies had converged on the shopping plaza.

Residents were told to get out at around 1:30 a.m. Saturday, shortly after the delivery driver pumping gas into the tank heard a pop, realized there was a leak and alerted authorities, said Michael Meath, a spokesman for the New York Propane Gas Association, a trade group. The tank is used for heating the shopping plaza.

Propane, which is heavier than air and flammable, can collect at low points. Had there been a blast, it could have affected the entire square-mile area, fire officials said.

"We didn't want to take any chances," Levy said.

So as officials worked to keep the gas in place and trucks then siphoned it out of the tank, about 175 people spent at least part of the day at an emergency shelter at William Floyd High School.

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