HUNDREDS of office workers were evacuated in Newcastle city centre yesterday after workmen caused a gas scare.
The leak happened at the site of the new city library, backing onto John Dobson Street, after a 4in gas pipe was ruptured shortly after 2pm.
Police cordoned off the area around the Laing art gallery and the Newcastle Building Society and along New Bridge Street, Carliol Street and Pilgrim Street as crowds of workers gathered on Northumberland Street. Twenty buildings were evacuated, sending 300 people outside.
Traffic wardens and police officers diverted traffic as queues built up across the city centre for the rest of the afternoon and into rush hour. Roads reopened at 7pm and people were allowed back into buildings shortly after that.
Bosses at Newcastle Council, who are spending millions on the new library, last night apologised for the disruption.
Staff from the Newcastle Building Society on John Dobson Street, from the Nationwide and Halifax banks on New Bridge Street, and from the neighbouring Pearl Assurance House offices and Watson House opposite, were all sent out from their desks as a strong smell of gas hung over the area.
Several police cars and vans guarded the scene, which was cordoned off with police tape, and fire crews were on standby at the entrance to the library site as gas engineers worked to fix the pipe.
They had to get into the evacuated buildings to switch off air conditioning as colleagues tried to find the source of the leak.
Alan Blair, 26, a temporary worker in Watson House, said: “I didn’t notice anything at first but as more and more people mentioned it, you could smell the gas in the air. It was extremely strong.
“The police are waving everyone away, saying it’s only minor, but it smells like there’s been an awful lot of an escape.”
Another worker, who did not want to be named, said: “People in our building said they could smell gas, so one of our health and safety people went to check it out. After that they took us all out of the building.”
Polly Rourke, spokeswoman for Northern Gas Networks, said: “Demolition contractors have damaged a 4in supply main. One of the main problems is that isn’t very windy and the smell has been lingering.”
A spokesman for Newcastle City Council said: “A sub-contractor working on the new city library development accidentally caused damage to an isolation valve on an adjacent gas main to the site.
“Health and safety procedures were put into operation and Transco was informed of the leak immediately. Parts of John Dobson Street and New Bridge Street were closed and adjacent business premises were evacuated as a precaution.
“Tolent Construction, the main contractor on site, has launched an investigation.”