The discovery of a large sinkhole and gas and water leaks Thursday morning in Bethlehem, PA, near the Historic Downtown prompted an evacuation of about six city blocks and caused officials to condemn three homes.
Just before 7 a.m., authorities said they learned about the leaks in the 700 block of North New Street, where the fire chief said a sinkhole became “a large cavern.” Emergency responders began evacuating the immediate area shortly after they arrived.
By 10 a.m., that evacuation zone expanded to a three-block radius centered on the 700 block of North New Street.
Fire Chief Robert Novatnack said UGI shut off gas to the area by 11 a.m. and by noon firefighters began escorting residents back home, using gas meters to make sure no pockets of gas remained in their houses.
However, he said, homes on the 700 block of North New Street remain uninhabitable.
“There is some shifting of the buildings there and a large cavern basically under the street, a huge area that the soil is not there anymore,” Novatnack said.
He said the macadam is hanging over part of the sinkhole, but North New Street, from Broad to Union, will end up closed indefinitely.
He said engineers must inspect the buildings and decide what, if any, measures can be taken to secure them.
Three homes — at 713, 715 and 717 — were condemned, and the homeowners cannot re-enter them, Novatnack said. The sidewalk in front of the homes was depressed about 2 feet, and cracks were visible in foundation and concrete stoops.
Novatnack said doors in the home were askew and could not be opened. There were large cracks in the outside walls of the homes.
The homes at 711 and 719 are being re-evaluated, Novatnack said, and the entire block is off-limits, affecting about 25 people.
Engineers, UGI and PPL officials are investigating the cause, Novatnack said.
The initial call was for a water leak, and when city workers arrived, they smelled gas and discovered the sinkhole, Novatnack said. It is not yet known if the water leak caused the sinkhole, or vice versa.
Power remained off to the west side of the 700 block of North New Street, and workers disconnected water service for the entire block. During the incident, as many as 4,000 residents lost power.
Craig Hynes, chief building inspector for the city, said he believes it’s the biggest evacuation in at least 15 years.
There were no reports of injuries.