EAST CHICAGO | Around 200 East Chicago residents were cleared to return to their homes around 9 a.m. Thursday after a gas leak forced their evacuation late Wednesday, according to City Council President Adrian Santos, D-1st.
Larry Graham, spokesman for NIPSCO, said around 10 p.m. residents reported a strong smell of gas near West 145th Street and Magoun Avenue. NIPSCO crews responded and discovered a leak on a main under the street, which caused the pavement there to buckle.
East Chicago emergency crews evacuated a four-block area around the leak from 144th Street to 146th Street along Magoun Avenue, including Harrison Elementary School. The school canceled classes for the day.
Between 20 and 25 CSX trains were diverted from the area over rail lines owned by Norfolk Southern and Indiana Harbor Belt lines, said Scott Kuhner, director of Chicago coordination for the company.
Herbie Cruz, the city's emergency management director, said the city's emergency response plan was activated Wednesday night after numerous 911 calls were made and it was soon confirmed there was a gas leak.
Cruz said police and fire officials went door to door, alerting residents they had to evacuate, and that all available city vehicles were used to provide transportation for the evacuees, including school buses, city buses, police and fire vehicles.
Many of those evacuated were taken to Harrison Hall behind City Hall, where they stayed the night.
Cruz said the city's health department provided cots, food and physical assessments for residents, especially for the elderly. He said The Salvation Army, American Red Cross and St. Catherine Hospital assisted with providing health and safety services.
The School City of East Chicago brought in a hot breakfast for displaced residents shortly before they were cleared to return to their homes.
Cruz said NIPSCO crews shut down the main gas line and stopped the leak around 7:30 a.m. Utility workers checked the levels of residual gas remaining in the area to ensure residents could return to their homes safely.
Cruz explained residents must be at home before NIPSCO crews will be able to restore gas service to individual customers, which they will do on a house-by-house basis.
Nick Meyer, spokesman for NIPSCO, said 22 homes will remain without gas service as repairs continue. As soon as the repairs are complete, those final customers will have service restored, Meyer said.
Anyone who is not home when NIPSCO crews come knocking will be left contact information.
The cause of the leak remained under investigation Thursday morning.
Residents at Harrison Hall overwhelmingly praised city crews for their work to evacuate them quickly and safely. Dozens of residents from babies to seniors stayed the night on cots in the gymnasium.
"I don't care what anybody says about East Chicago, everyone here was wonderful," said Stella Rzepczynski, 90, who was on her back porch watching television when she heard a knock on the door. "The firemen and policemen did a great job."
Shamirra Webb said was sleeping around 10 p.m. when she heard banging on the door of her house.
"I didn't know what was going on," Webb said. "They were banging so hard it was actually shaking the house a little bit."
Webb said she grabbed her 8-year-old son and left the house.
"The people were quick with everything and did everything in a coordinated fashion," Webb said. "It could have been much worse. We were really blessed."
When Rubashuana Ford was told she would be evacuating, she was concerned about her 2-year-old daughter, who is asthmatic.
"I called the paramedics, grabbed my baby and wrapped her in a blanket," Ford said. "None of us even have our shoes."
When emergency crews heard Ford had an asthmatic child, she went to the front of the line for transport to the Harrison Hall.
"The Fire Department was on point," she said. "They did the right thing."
Cruz said everything went according to plan.
"It was a very well-coordinated effort," he said. "It's what we practice for."
"They did a heck of a job," he said. "The whole entire staff was hands on since 10 last night."
Staff writer Pete Nickeas contributed to this report.