FAMILIES had to be evacuated from their homes after sitting down to watch television unaware that a time bomb was ticking beneath them.

Fumes from petrol reached an explosive level after contaminating the basement of a terrace house in Britten Street, Darwen.

A woman, her son and his girlfriend were evacuated from the house along with residents from two neighbouring properties - including a 15-month-old baby - at 10.30pm.

Firefighters said the fuel pipe of a Vauxhall Astra parked off the road at the junction of Harwood Street had ruptured causing the highly flammable liquid to soak through concrete and into soil in the cellar.

A crew spent more than five hours swilling away the petrol and attempting to ventilate the homes.

Sub Officer Paul Yates, of Darwen Fire Station, said: "The family were very lucky indeed. It would have only taken the slightest spark, like switching on a light, to cause an explosion.

"We left the television, lights and other electrical equipment turned on to be on the safe side." Environmental health officers have been informed of the incident and residents were allowed to return this morning after firefighters gave the all clear.

John Smith, 29, was one the the residents affected by the alert.

He said: "I was watching television when the neighbours knocked on the door saying they could smell gas.

"Transco came out but it turned out to be petrol. I've spent the night on my sister's floor and have been told just turning anything on or off could have blown the house."

Police have been guarding the empty homes during the night. Sgt Colin Shaw of Darwen Police who attended the incident added: "The car parked off the road awaiting repair and it seems the petrol line had ruptured.

"The residents raised the alarm after noticing the strong smell and were moved out for the night as a precaution. They are staying with relatives and we hope they will be able to return later today."

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