For those residents of Gail Place who believed a gas leak couldn't threaten their homes again, the sight of fire engines screaming to their street in the early morning hours of Nov. 16 was a rude awakening.
"We never had this kind of problem in the past," said one resident of the normally quiet cul-de-sac off Radio Avenue, one of the few residents home during the weekday. He did not give his name, but swept so vigorously at the puddles left by a shower that he seemed angry.
Gail Place is part of a circle of streets off Radio Avenue with a single way in and out. On Nov. 16, contractors hired by United Water to dig up the street to install new water mains ripped out a gas line by mistake, filling one house completely with gas and causing the evacuation of two houses.
PSE&G officials said houses at 11, 14, and 16 Gail Place suffered varying degrees of gas contamination, although officials on the scene said one house at Radio Avenue and Gail Place was completely filled.
"A woman was sleeping upstairs in the house," said Vincent Massaro, Sr., coordinator of the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management. "It was a very close thing."
Firefighters were forced to kick in the door of one of the houses in order to air it out.
The most-filled house was a spark away from a repeat of an explosion that leveled a home at 34 Gail Place last February. At the time, Mayor Dennis Elwell asked the state Board of Public Utilities to investigate and come up with some preventative measures. As a result, some safeguards were supposedly put into place and agreements to replace some of the aging lines were worked out with both United Water and PSE&G.
The area has been plagued with water main breaks over the last decade, and the February explosion - although no official report has yet determined an exact cause - was believed to have been caused when water workers accidentally broke a gas line.
An extremely angry Mayor Dennis Elwell blamed the Nov. 16 incident on the alleged mis-marking of gas lines coming from the house at 11 Gail Place.
"The contractor working for the water company dug up the street because someone mis-marked where the gas line was," Elwell said.
Another town official on the scene - who wished not to have his name used - said a PSE&G inspector who was sent to the area to mark the location of gas lines in anticipation of street work may have allegedly mistook where the line entered the house.
"The meter was on the side of the house [along the Radio Avenue side]," he said. "The inspector apparently thought the line ran from there towards the side. But gas lines always run out to the front side of the street, never the side. So when the people from the water company started digging, they dug up the gas line."
The near-disaster caused officials to rush back from Atlantic City where the mayor, several council members and other key town personnel were attending a League of Municipalities convention.
Elwell, while in route, order an immediate halt to work that began on Nov. 12, until a review could be done of the other gas markings along three streets in the area slated for new mains: Gail Place, Valley Court and James Place.
The mayor said a PSE&G inspector would work with United Water to make certain that the connections are correctly identified before digging.
But one town official said that there could be more problems with water main breaks in the future because there is an absence of necessary gravel in certain areas. The area around the new water mains was supposed to be filled with gravel.
"They were simply putting back the dirt they took out," this official said. "The water company inspector told them to tear it all up and redo it."
Fire units from two engine companies responded to the scene, setting up fans in the three affected buildings in order to remove residual gas. Police and Office of Emergency Management officials were also on the scene, helping to block off streets.
"A friend of mine lives down there, but he hasn't been back since," said Tom Troyer.
Town administrator Anthony Iacono said mistakes in markings on streets happen from time to time, but what made this a particular concern was the explosion earlier in the year.
"There is always a danger any time we have a break a gas line," he said. "A spark somewhere could have caused another tragedy."
Iacono said the state Board of Public Utilities will continue to monitor the situation to make certain that everything is handled correctly.