Families forced to evacuate overnight because of possible gas leaks

Atmos Energy asked for another round of evacuations just before 4 a.m. Wednesday in a neighborhood near where a house explosion killed a 12-year-old girl last week.

Nearly 300 families are still unable to return to their Northwest Dallas homes. Residents who haven't been evacuated are living in fear.

The latest evacuation included the odd-numbered houses in the 9800 block of Bowman Boulevard, all houses in the 9900 block of Bowman Boulevard and odd-numbered houses in the 9900 block of Chireno Street.

The area being investigated is expansive from Forest Lane South to Northwest Highway between Webb Chapel and Midway.

People were told to take everything they need for at least three days -- things like medication, cash, pets and pet food. Hotel rooms vouchers, meals and gift cards are being provided for the evacuees.

Hundreds of residents from the community packed Foster Elementary Tuesday night demanding answers from the gas company. Primarily, they wanted assurance the repair work won’t lead to another tragedy that killed 12-year-old Michellita Rogers.

Michellita was killed last Friday when her family’s home on Espanola Drive exploded. Neighbors said there were also two other gas-related fires in the same neighborhood.

Atmos said it is replacing about two and a half miles of its lines. About two-thirds of the work is complete and some people have already been allowed back into their homes.

Ludivinia Orozco has lived near the corner of Bowman and Chireno for 18 years. Both streets are among the latest round of evacuations as Atmos crews work on the gas lines in the area.

“They evacuated these two houses, and we're thinking about leaving too because they haven't told us anything,” Orozco said.

Neighbors on Cortez and Wemdon were evacuated Wednesday, too. Many of them were put in hotels where other families have been since they were evacuated last Friday.

Bruno Valdez lives on Espanola Drive, the same street where Michellita died in a house explosion. Valdez was evacuated with his wheelchair-bound relatives.

“It's been hectic. Our lives have been turned upside down,” he said. “They're treating us nice, but that's nothing to what we're going through. Everybody has a story. ‘My husband can't do this. My kids this. I got this.’”

Others like Carlos Rico didn't have time to pack anything when they were told to leave. Rico says he doesn't have a car to get to work from the hotel where he's staying.

“I'm going to be losing my job too because I need to go back to work and pay rent, too,” Rico said.

Families say Atmos is providing some meals and gift cards for expenses but not any answers on when they can go home.

“They put the gas right here,” Rico said. “You don't know if the next street is going to blow up the next house because they're still digging in.”

“We need the problem fixed,” said resident Latasha Reese. “Not halfway fixed. We need it all the way fixed to make it to where we feel safe. They need to gain our trust back somehow, some way.”

City council members believe that any 50- to 60-year-old neighborhood in Dallas could have the same issues. They worry the aging pipeline problem could be citywide.

Dallas City Councilmember Adam Medrano says it is hard to trust Atmos now and that poor communication hasn’t helped.

“But we know Atmos does not want another explosion,” he said. “They are doing their best to make homes as safe as possible.”

Omar Narvaez represents the neighboring district where the Chapel Creek Apartments were evacuated. Both he and Medrano say Atmos did not have translators during the initial round of evacuations.

“A lot of Spanish residents feel like they're being ignored because their name goes into a waiting list for someone to get back to them,” Narvaez said. “The night before, I was up until 2:30 in the morning talking to a resident to make sure they felt safe and secure.”

Medrano says he believes Atmos should’ve started the evacuations after the first two gas-related incidents and before the Friday’s explosion that killed Michellita.

Some residents were told it was safe to go home, but they don't feel safe going back because of the new evacuations. Atmos says they have crews going door to door on certain streets restoring gas service so people can go back home.

"There are more leaks. They cannot send the people back home because it's still leaked on the properties around there,” Rico said. “It's not safe to be around all this property there."

Dallas Fire Station 43 on Lombardy Lane also remains evacuated. Atmos crews have been working there ever since a gas leak was detected around 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Firefighters from the station are now responding to calls from two different stations on Walnut Hill Lane and Mockingbird Lane.

Residents also wanted to know why they weren’t warned about possible leaks in the neighborhood.

Atmos representatives would only say that the National Transportation Safety Board has taken over the investigation and that it has been throwing out every resource it has to make sure people are safe.

The Rogers’ family attorney, who was at the Tuesday meeting, said he is investigating reports that an Atmos crew was in the neighborhood at the time of the explosion.

Dallas firefighters stepped through the Rogers' family home Wednesday to search for a cross and baby jewelry that belonged to Michellita

Getting back into the home has been an uphill battle for the family's attorney, John Barr. The NTSB will allow the family into the home escorted by firefighters, but will not allow Barr inside to collect the belongings the family wants to bury with their daughter.

Adding to the complications, there were likely missed warning signs in this area weeks before the explosion. Some residents acknowledge they smelled gas near their homes but never reported it to Atmos.

A preliminary report on the explosion will be out in 30 days, but it could be 18 months before the full report is complete.