AUBURN — Several businesses were evacuated and police closed a section of Center Street Thursday afternoon after construction crews ruptured a gas main.

After workers nicked the 6-inch gas line at the intersection of Center Street and the Stetson Road, police said gas was purging and the immediate area was evacuated.

Police contacted the media to put out word that motorists who travel through the area should seek alternate routes. Even so, traffic issues became a problem almost immediately.

“It’s a tough time of day for this kind of thing to happen,” said Auburn police Sgt. James Robicheau.
Employees and customers at Lee Auto and Evergreen Subaru were cleared out of those buildings as a precaution, Robicheau said. So were those at the stores in the Auburn Plaza on the other side of Center Street, including movie-goers at Flagship Cinemas.

At the Plaza, bystanders watching the action across Center Street reported they could smell the natural gas and hear it leaking from the ruptured pipe.

While crews from Northern Utilities were working to repair the busted line, police closed off Joline and Malibu drives as well as Stetson Road. Police diverted northbound and southbound traffic along Center Street to different routes around the scene of the gas leak.

The mishap caused traffic snarls along both ends of Center Street but there were no immediate reports of injury.

One woman, leaving Lewiston bound for Farmington around 4 p.m., said it took 45 minutes just to get through Auburn due to congestion and the detour.

By 6 p.m., Center Street was re-opened and traffic began to flow normally through the area. Utility crews continued to work at the scene of the line break and repairs were expected to be finished by Thursday night.

The parking lot at the Auburn Plaza early Thursday evening took on the look of a tailgate party, minus the beer coolers and barbecues. Employees from some of the closed stores hung out in lawn chairs or in the back of vans waiting to see if they would be sent back to work.

“A lot of the others took off right away,” said a woman who works at the Family Dollar Store. “But we’re sticking it out to see if we’ll be going back to work.”

The wait was short after that: Less than a half hour after she uttered that line, the store was re-opened and the Family Dollar crew went back to work.

A small family shuffled around in front of the cinema, hoping it would open soon so they could go watch a movie. At about 6 p.m., a cinema official announced that they were preparing to open as soon as they were given the green light.

It happened shortly after and the timing was good: “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” was scheduled to start at 6:40 p.m.

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