PORTLAND — A construction crew doing sewer work on Front Street hit a natural gas line Thursday afternoon, causing a “significant” leak that forced authorities to cut electrical power in the area and evacuate 44 homes for several hours.

The leak was reported shortly after 1 p.m. in the area of 104 Front St., a densely-populated area off Washington Avenue near Payson Park, that includes the Front Street public housing complex and Seaside Rehabilitation, an assisted-living facility.

The power outage knocked out traffic lights, causing traffic tie-ups along Washington Avenue around the time school was letting out for the day. Students from the nearby Presumpscot Elementary School who live in the evacuation area were kept late at school with their parents notified by an automated telephone service.

Deputy Fire Chief David Jackson said he kept the areas of Front Street between Johansen Street and West Presumpscot Street closed until around 4 p.m. to allow gas workers to inspect each building individually and ventilate them before lifting the evacuation.

“Within the first hour, Unitil arrived on scene and was able to get the gas leak secured. But it took at least two hours to verify all the buildings,” Jackson said. “We had gas reports in some of the single-family homes, and we were getting gas reports in the sewer.”

While the electrical outage affected an even greater area, Seaside Rehabilitation did not have to evacuate and was able to retain power using generators, Jackson said.

The city also sent a Metro bus to the scene, so displaced residents would have a place to sit and rest during the evacuation, he said.

Madeline Carson, who was evacuated from her Johansen Street home, stood at the intersection of her street and Washington Avenue, waiting for a taxi with her cat, Smokey, in a pet carrier at her feet around 3 p.m.

“I want to get out of here,” she said, picking up the cat carrier as the taxi pulled up.

The half of Johansen Street closer to Front Street was evacuated, while residents closer to Washington Avenue were allowed to stay in their homes.

Tina Roberts, who lives on Johansen Street with five members of her family, said she was right on the line and allowed to remain home.

Roberts, who was outside as other members of her family sat on the porch, said they were more curious about what was happening than concerned.

“We’re safe,” Roberts said, as Unitil crew members continued to go house to house conducting checks.

“They’ve kind of been cool, keeping us informed,” she said.

Deb Bailey, who has lived on Johansen Street for 38 years, knew nothing about the gas leak until she was returning home with her 5-year-old granddaughter, Solera, who she cares for while her mother works.

“I was just coming back home on the bus with her, and there was a Metro bus at the end of the street, and he said ‘You’ve been evacuated,’” Bailey said.

She and her granddaughter waited on the Metro bus for about an hour and a half before they were allowed to return home, where Solera played in the yard.

“She met a new friend on the bus, so she had a great time,” Bailey said.

Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at: 791-6304 or at

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