Thousands of homes and businesses within a half-mile radius of a ruptured natural gas pipeline in Mission Valley were evacuated Wednesday afternoon as a safety precaution.
A 5-mile stretch of state Route 163 between Interstate 8 and Interstate 805 also was closed, creating traffic headaches in and around the area that were expected to worsen as the afternoon commute got underway.
“By around 3 o’clock, it is going to have major effects,” California Highway Patrol Officer Jake Sanchez said. “Any time we shut down a north and southbound artery, all the other north and southbound freeways are going to feel the impact. They will either go to the 805, the 15 or the 5 — all those freeways will be impacted.”
The incident began shortly after 10:35 a.m. when a construction worker working near the Fashion Valley mall accidentally drilled into the pipeline.
Nearly three hours later — around 1:20 p.m. — workers with SDG&E were able to shut off gas flowing through the 20-inch diameter pipe, said San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman Alec Phillipp.
Officials now are waiting for all the gas that was in the line to “bleed out” from the line, Phillipp said.
Police and firefighters initially evacuated a couple of businesses near the leak, including PF Chang’s China Bistro and the Container Store.
By 1:30 p.m., firefighters and police were going door-to-door and 911 reverse calls were being used to alert residents and people working in nearby businesses that they needed to evacuate.
Those who were leaving their homes were being told to go to shelters that were being set up by the Red Cross and Homeland Security officials, Phillipp said.
According to the San Diego County emergency website, a temporary evacuation point was set up at 5905 Friars Road, near the Riverwalk Golf Course.
Fire officials said they heard some media reports that the evacuation area had been expanded to a 2-mile radius, but Phillipp said it remained at a half-mile from the leaking pipeline.
Around 2 p.m., Sanchez said he could still see gas spewing from the rupture, located north of Friars Road on the west side of SR-163 near Ulric Street. The officer said he was about 500 yards from the broken pipe and couldn’t smell any gas.
“They have shut down the lines, but there’s still gas within the lines,” Sanchez said. “They are waiting for the gas to stop coming out. Once that happens, they’ll have to access the damage and things around the actual leak to make sure it is safe for them to start working (on repairs).”
He said it wasn’t known when the freeway would be reopened.
“Depending on the circumstances, we will probably be able to open up the freeway, although we might need to keep a couple lanes shut,” he said.
The pipeline was broken when a contractor working for Caltrans accidentally drilled into the pipeline next to an abutment near the Friars Road bridge, said Caltrans spokesman Hayden Manning.
Caltrans was hired by the city of San Diego to undertake the $111 million construction project, which will widen the Friars Road overcrossing from three to four lanes in each direction and revamp the on-and off-ramps. It also calls for the construction of a southbound SR-163 auxiliary lane just north of Friars Road.
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