Mastic fire chief Dwight Blankenship talks about the Shirley gas...

Mastic fire chief Dwight Blankenship talks about the Shirley gas leak. (Jan. 3, 2011) Credit: James Carbone

A quick-thinking fire chief and constant training by firefighters were key to averting disaster New Year's Day after a propane tank leaked thousands of gallons of fuel behind a Shirley store, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said Sunday as he presented the "key to the county" to Mastic Fire Chief Dwight Blankenship and his firefighters.

"The amount of time you take away from your families, the time you could be putting into a second job, you are out there training," Levy told a crowd of firefighters, community leaders, friends and family gathered at the headquarters on Mastic Beach Road. "For what? For that one time when the big event is upon us. And when it happened this time, this New Year's Day, you responded magnificently."

Levy called it the largest response to an incident in Suffolk County since the 1995 Pine Barren wildfires.

More than 80 fire trucks from across Long Island and ambulances responded when a fuel supplier making a delivery to the tank behind a Kohl's store on Montauk Highway noticed something wrong and alerted authorities.

A command center was quickly set up, and with other agencies, the fire department began evacuating more than 2,000 area residents.

Blankenship, as well as his Assistant Chief Jim Mickert, were among the first to arrive at the scene, where the clouds of gas rose at least 3 feet into the air like a fog, he said at the time of the leak.

Firefighters made several attempts to seal the 30,000-gallon tank, which is estimated to have leaked between 7,000 to 9,000 gallons of propane, but were unsuccessful, said Mastic Fire Department officials.

Fuel supply company Paraco Gas from Smithtown was able to cool down the temperature inside the tank before Industrial Propane Reclamation of New Jersey sucked out the rest of the fuel. It was determined that a cracked plastic valve was the cause of the leak.

Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said he will nominate Blankenship for the New York Senate Liberty Award, and Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) will recognize the fire department at a future legislative meeting, said Levy.

Blankenship was quick to take the spotlight off himself and place it on the hundreds of volunteers and government officials that helped.

"This is a great day for my department, not just me," said Blankenship.

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