Emergency responders at Nassau University Medical Center, where a report...

Emergency responders at Nassau University Medical Center, where a report of a liquid oxygen leak at the hospital led to the evacuation of nearby homes. (August 23, 2011) Credit: Jim Staubitser

A project to replace liquid oxygen storage tanks next to Nassau University Medical Center went awry Tuesday when a containment valve broke and a vapor cloud leaked into the air, forcing nearby residents to evacuate, authorities said.

Officials were concerned that the liquid oxygen could fuel a fire if one broke out in the area.

The leak was in the larger of two tanks being replaced; the leaking tank can store 11,000 gallons. A reserve tank holds 1,500 gallons, officials said.

Officials were conducting a controlled vent of those tanks Tuesday. They planned to replace them afterward. Crews from the Nassau County Emergency Services Unit, Hazmat team, Nassau County fire marshals and the East Meadow Fire Department responded at the scene. Hospital spokeswoman Shelley Lotenberg said NUMC's tanks would be replaced by the end of the week. She said the hospital had enough oxygen to continue treating patients.

Police closed part of Hempstead Turnpike Tuesday morning and evacuated Clearmeadow Drive. Hempstead Turnpike was reopened within an hour, while Carmans Avenue, Salisbury Drive and Franklin Avenue were reopened about 1 p.m.

It was not immediately clear how much oxygen was in the tanks when the valve broke. Lotenberg said the main tank was at the "refill level."

The break was reported in a 911 call at 10:11 a.m. Thick, white, condensated air billowed into the air from the tanks as the liquid oxygen was vented.

Tony Cicchetti, 63, who lives around the corner from the hospital, said he took his neighbor to Walmart for an hour after the neighbor was asked to evacuate. Cicchetti said police had assured him the leak was contained, so he didn't feel scared or nervous.

"We couldn't see the smoke from here," he said as he stood in front of his neighbor's house on Clearmeadow Drive.

With Sid Cassese

and Candice Ruud

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