About 100 students, staff and faculty stood outside the Math/Physics building Wednesday after a natural gas leak caused a mandatory building evacuation and temporarily stalled classes.
No one was hurt, though the leak – caused by a graduate student who accidentally drilled a hole through a gas line – may prompt increased training for people who work and attend class in the building.
Around 10:10 a.m., office manager Mary Ann Prowant said she received a call from an unnamed student complaining about the smell of gas in the building, setting off a chain of phone calls. Prowant said she smelled gas as well, and called facility manager Bruce Smith, who in turn called physical plant and the Division of Environmental Health and Safety. Physical plant then called University Police (UP), which immediately dispatched officers to the building, Smith said.
Meanwhile, Prowant said everyone in the building was beginning to smell the fumes.
“As soon as I walked in the building, I smelled the gas,” said physics major Meghan Mapes. “I saw a professor and asked him about it, and he just said, ‘yeah, it’s a leak. Don’t smoke any cigarettes.'”
UP officer Tom Bobrowski said he and a few other officers arrived at the scene around 10:20 a.m. and had evacuated the building by 10:30 a.m. During this time, the gas was turned off completely, and was left off until the leak was fixed.
The adjacent Math/Physics auditorium was not affected, so classes there were not interrupted.
Once everyone was safely outside, Bobrowski said UP called the Tampa Fire Department, which handled the gas leak. From there, the leak was repaired and the fire department used a truck with fans to ventilate the fumes, Lt. Meg Ross said. Officials then retested fire safety alarms and checked the gas meter reading.
By 11:40 a.m., Bobrowski and the fire department announced that it was safe for people to enter the building again, in time for scheduled noon exams.
Smith said a graduate student drilled a hole in a wall to mount a cylinder in the basement of the building, accidentally striking the gas line. Physical plant should have handled the drilling, however, said Cheryl L. Kirstein, associate dean of Research and Scholarship, who was acting as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences while Dean John Skvoretz was away. This is because Physical Plant knows how to look for gas lines before drilling, she said.
To prevent this from happening again, Kirstein said that all students and faculty who work in the University’s labs need to understand the procedures for drilling and how to use space impact forms, which detail where gas lines are.
“We need to increase training,” she said. “Faculty and students need to know the importance of safety, and we need to increase training about the procedures involved.”
Though the gas leak kept people out of the building, it didn’t keep them out of the area. Fire trucks, the crowd outside and TV camera crews garnered the attention of some passersby.
“Everyone was surrounding the building – I thought it was on fire,” said sophomore biomedical sciences major Saya Karim. “People were just sticking around. You’d think everyone would run away. I heard some people say: ‘Why are we standing around? What if it explodes?'”
Many students and faculty waited outside to determine whether their classes would continue or be forced to cancel. The 11 a.m. Mechanics I class in the building was canceled, though students stood outside together to discuss the course.
“I’m bummed that class was canceled,” said physics major Eric Norton. “We were supposed to get our exams back today, and I know that we’re going to have to make up the work for the class later, which gives us less time to get everything done before the semester ends. It’s the kind of class you can’t afford to miss.”
Kirstein said she attributes the safe outcome to UP and Smith’s responsiveness.
“I was shocked when I saw the fire trucks on campus,” she said. “I ran over immediately out of concern for faculty, students and staff who were in the building. I’m glad no one was hurt.”
Additional reporting by Amy Mariani.