HUNDREDS of people were evacuated from their homes when contractors working on a water main in Kay Street, Darwen, severed a gas pipe, sending fumes into properties.

Emergency services were on stand-by in case of explosion as gas continued to escape, finding its way into drains.

The workers from John Kennedy were carrying out major works to install new water pipes in Kay Street on behalf of North West Water, when the gas pipe was fractured at lunchtime yesterday.

Electricity and water supplies were cut as engineers spent hours tracing the source of the leak.

The mains were finally sealed at 7.45pm, but householders were not allowed back into their homes in Kay Street and on the Ellenshaw estate until almost an hour later, when the escaped gas had cleared.

Sgt Phil Nowland of Darwen police said: "The leak turned out to be far larger than expected. "Gas was seeping through into any hole it could find. The first danger was to the houses in Kay Street because the gas was getting into drains and everything."

Ambulance crews were on hand to ferry disabled residents from the Ellenshaw estate to relatives and the nearby Sudellside Community Centre.

Assistant Divisional Officer Chris Norse from Blackburn fire station, said: "All the premises in the affected area where evacuated as a precaution."

A spokeswoman for British Gas said: "Contractors for North West Water went through a low pressure main.

"We had to try to locate the damage by monitoring for gas levels. Work continued today to make permanent repairs."

She added that British Gas would seek to recover costs for the damage from the contractors.

A spokeswoman for North West Water said: "Contractors cut through a gas service main, which was not on the area's drawings."

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