Thursday, September 29, 2016

The discovery of a large sinkhole Thursday morning in Bethlehem, PA near the Historic Downtown caused gas and water leaks, prompting an evacuation of about six city blocks.

Bethlehem residents trickling back after being evacuated, 'large cavern' under New Street

Bethlehem Fire Chief Robert Novatnack says power is being restored but some homes have been damaged.
Matt Coughlin and Pamela LehmanContact ReportersOf The Morning Call

BETHLEHEM, PA — The discovery of a large sinkhole Thursday morning in Bethlehem near the Historic Downtown caused gas and water leaks, prompting an evacuation of about six city blocks.

Just before 7 a.m., authorities said they were notified about the leaks in the 700 block of North New Street, where the fire chief said a sinkhole grew into "a large cavern."

Fire Chief Robert Novatnack said UGI shut off gas to the area by 11 a.m.

Shortly before noon, he said firefighters began escorting some residents back home, using gas meters to make sure no pockets of gas remained inside their houses.

However, he said homes on the 700 block of New Street remain uninhabitable.

"There is some shifting of the buildings there and a large cavern basically under the street, a huge area that the soil is not there anymore," Novatnack said.

Authorities in Bethlehem evacuated some residents along North New Street due to a reported gas and water leak Thursday morning. Officias believe there is a sinkhole underground near the corner of North New Street because the facades of several buildings have beguin to show some movement. (MATT COUGHLIN / THE MORNING CALL, HARRY FISHER / THE MORNING CALL)

He said the macadam is hanging on over part of the sinkhole, but that section of North New Street will be closed indefinitely.

He said engineers must inspect the buildings and decide what, if any, measures can be taken to secure them.

Engineers, UGI and PP&L officials are investigating the cause, Novatnack said, and that investigation could stretch into Friday.

About 11 a.m. about 1,400 homes were still without power. During the incident there were as many as 4,000 residents without power.

Craig Hynes, chief building inspector for the city, said he believes it's the biggest evacuation in at least 15 years.

Executive Director Peter Brown talks about the American Red Cross providing emergency shelter to evacuees in Bethlehem following a gas and water leak Thursday morning.

UGI cut gas to the area two blocks on either side of East Broad Street while crews worked on fixing the leak. The utility also asked PPL to cut power to the area

Alex Karras, Mayor Robert Donchez's chief of staff, said a six-block area was evacuated.

"We are asking all residents and visitors to avoid the area so that we can take care of this problem," Karras said.

There were no reports of injuries.

Peter Brown, executive director of the Greater Lehigh Valley American Red Cross, said about two dozen of the people evacuated took emergency shelter Thursday morning in Monocacy Tower at 645 Main St.

He expected the Red Cross would be providing further service to people who will be displaced because of the gas leak.

Andrew Ferrigno said he was up before dawn on his computer when he heard a neighbor outside, alerting him to the problem in the 700 block of North New Street. A couple hours later, fire and police officials were knocking on doors and ordering everyone to leave within minutes.

His son, Matthew Ferrigno, said he and his family were waiting for a bus to take them to the shelter when officials began opening up the sewer grates and sticking probes down.

"The smell of gas was so strong," he said.

The evacuation stranded the Ferrigno's vehicles in a nearby lot, so they could not get to work.

Linda Groff, who lives a few doors away, had barely enough time to get dressed and grab food for her miniature teacup dog, Bella, before she was ordered to evacuate.

"At least we're all safe," Groff said.

Officials plan to update the city website with information.