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Residents on fleeing Shirley gas leak

Duane Consalvo, 46, was watching the "Twilight Zone" marathon in the early morning hours of New Year's Day when he heard a loud knock on the door of his home on Pinelawn Avenue in Shirley.

Consalvo was told to leave his home. Propane gas was leaking from behind the Kohl's department store across the street. Consalvo stepped out on his porch just as the Long Island Power Authority was turning off electric service in the area.

He watched as the lights went out at one house after another on the block.

"It was like sci-fi," said Consalvo, who works for the Internal Revenue Service in Brookhaven.

Consalvo said five of his family members were at home at the time, including his 72-year-old mother, Lorna, who uses a walker. All fled.

"Imagine this," said his sister, Audrey Consalvo, 40. "New Year's starts with a bang."

Duane Consalvo said the family has relatives in Hampton Bays and in Pennsylvania where they can stay if they cannot return home anytime soon.

- Carl Corry

Natalie Farrell was on her way to a pay phone about 1:30 a.m. to call her daughter, who was at a friend's house, when she said she smelled the odor of gas. So she walked back home to get two of her children - Jeremy Lavarco, 18, and Angela Lavarco, 12.

"I smelled gas," Farrell said. "It was very strong."

She finally contacted her other daughter, Hannah Lavarco, 14, and she and her children made their way first to a Boston Market restaurant and then to William Floyd High School, which was turned into a temporary shelter.

"I was very nervous," Farrell said. "I'm still nervous. I am just waiting to see what they are going to tell us" about going home. "They told us we'd probably be able to go home tonight."

- Carl Corry

Catherine Szymborski had been sick in bed with an upper-respiratory infection for a week. Suffolk police, she said, knocked on her door at 2:30 a.m. Saturday and "suggested" that she and her husband, Eddie, leave their home on Ardmour Drive, less than a quarter-mile from the tank. Given how ill she has been feeling, Szymborski said, she and her husband opted to stay put.

Eddie Szymborski said that a few hours later, he decided to walk to a nearby coffee shop. When he tried to return home, he said, police told him he could not enter the area. He frantically told officers his wife was still in the house, and they let him go inside.

This time, the Szymborskis' decided to go, but not to a shelter. They sat in their car at the corner of Titmus Drive and Montauk Highway. Catherine Szymborski said that she did not feel well enough to go to a shelter and was more comfortable in the car.

"If they told us we had to leave, I would have gone," Catherine Szymborski said. "But they gave us that option. They didn't make it mandatory."

Catherine Szymborski, a nurse, and her husband, who is disabled, said they planned to go to a hotel.

- James Bernstein

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"We got a knock on the door from the police at 2 or 2:30," Patricia Eleazer, 54, said. "He said 'You have to evacuate the area,' so I told my son to get up."

Eleazer said that police did not tell her that the evacuation was because of a gas leak; she said she left the house without her heart and blood-pressure medications, her phone charger or anything other than a pillow for her 11-year-old son.

Eleazer first went to the firehouse, and when she told them about her medication, she was escorted back to her home in an ambulance to retrieve it. Eleazer and her neighbor Latesha Coach said they couldn't smell the gas inside their homes but that the smell was very strong outside.

"It gave me a headache," said Coach, 33, a certified nursing assistant. Coach and Eleazer were also concerned that the food in their homes will be spoiled when they go home because the electricity is shut off. "I have two freezers full of meat, who pays for that?"

- Arielle Brechisci

Mike Thornton said he lives 1,000 feet from the leaking tank. "The cops knocked on the door but nobody woke up," said Thornton, whose family slept through the knocking and the noise from their three dogs barking at the police officer.

"The cop walked into our house to make sure we woke up. I give the guy credit for doing that," said Thornton, 62. "Everyone appreciates them putting their neck on the line and running from house to house," said Thornton. "The response was incredible."

Thornton, who has lived in Shirley for 18 years, said his house was filled with gas when he awoke. He went with his family, his three dogs and his parrot to the shelter at William Floyd High School.

- Arielle Brechisci

Claire Balash said she woke up at 4:30 a.m. when police came to her house with a flashlight and said to evacuate the area because of a gas leak.

She said her family of five didn't pack anything, mainly because they couldn't see anything in the dark, without electricity. Balash, who has lived in Mastic for eight years, said her family was supposed to travel to Maryland for the holiday to see family.

"We're doing OK here," Balash said while sitting with her son James, 14, at a table in the corner of the cafeteria. "We're with our friends. But obviously it's not where we wanted to spend our New Year's Day."

- Arielle Brechisci

Beth Lombardo, 27, took nearly no supplies when she left her home hurriedly at 4 a.m. - not clothing, cell phone charger or formula for her 4-month-old son. Lombardo, an assistant manager at Suffolk County National Bank in Middle Island, said she went straight to the high school with her mother, Rosemary Henninger.

"It was so bad it took your breath away," said Henninger, 51, of the gas smell. "It was so strong it burned the back of your throat." Henninger, a receptionist who said she's lived in Mastic for 30 years, said she was very upset that the leak began at about 1:30 a.m. but that she and her neighbors weren't roused until 4 a.m.

"They couldn't give people a 'head's up' beforehand? It would have been nice if they didn't wait so long before the smell got so bad," Henninger said.

- Arielle Brechisci

Tom Spranger, 48, of Mastic said, "Everyone has been wonderful, and very professional." Spranger said his power went out about 2 a.m., and by 4 a.m. he had been told to evacuate. "They weren't forcing us out," Spranger said.

- Arielle Brechisci

Craig Cooper, public affairs coordinator for the Suffolk County Chapter of the American Red Cross, said the Red Cross was not allowed to have pets in the same shelter as people, so outside the high school was a MASH - a Mobile Animal Spay-Neuter hospital.

The vehicle has kennels for 29 dogs and a full operating room, said Steve Laton, chief of operations for the Suffolk County SPCA. "They've been considerably calm under the circumstances," Laton said of the 17 dogs, two cats and one parrot in the vehicle.

Laton said Suffolk County's MASH was the first of its kind when it was introduced in August 2001, and this is the second time since 9/11 that it's been used for an emergency response. The SPCA is keeping a list of all the people who have pets still at home, said Laton, who estimated there are about 10 such cases. "It seems to be that they're fine," he said of the animals that are still in their owners' homes.

- Arielle Brechisci

County Executive Steve Levy said the police started knocking on doors at 1:30 p.m. to make sure everyone was evacuated. "This stuff is very combustible and very deadly," said Levy, who estimated there were 900 homes that were evacuated. "We plan all year for an emergency and this was very efficient and coordinated."

Levy said a main concern is people or animals in basements or basement apartments because the propane is heavier than gas and will settle into the basement. Levy assured about 150 people in the high school cafeteria that the Red Cross would assist them in making alternate sleeping arrangements for the evening, or if anyone needed medication or supplies such as baby formula. Cots would be set up for people to sleep in the school over the evening, if the people who were evacuated had nowhere else to go.

- Arielle Brechisci

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