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It started with a whiff of gas at Town Hall station, and spread through the tunnels under the city in minutes.
Before long Sydney's transport network was all but crippled. Tens of thousands of commuters were stranded across the city, CBD train stations were closed and the Harbour Bridge was jammed with traffic, much of it inching forward on foot as workers gave up and walked home instead.
If you didn't walk you were stuck, in some cases on trains that sat immobile for up to two hours as RailCorp tried to open the lines and clear the backlog. One jammed train heading to the Blue Mountains sat packed with passengers at Central for nearly two hours. A schoolgirl on board fainted from the heat.
Outside the city the ripple effect was enormous, with delays at best on most lines and no trains at all on some. Taxis were all but impossible to get, and roads were swamped as thousands abandoned trains for cars.
The near-shutdown of Sydney's train network began about 1.30, when staff at Town Hall reported smelling gas. Soon afterwards, the smell was reported at other CBD stations. Trains were removed, stations closed and emergency services descended, with the fire brigade, police and ambulance deployed across the city network.
No one knew what the gas smell was, or where it was coming from, and all trains into the city were stopped at Central or North Sydney. The Eastern Suburbs line to Bondi Junction was shut down completely.
Tom Parry, of the gas company AGL, said: "The leak could be in commercial premises, in shops - a small takeaway shop for example - construction sites . . ."
Investigators were frustrated because the gas, which had been carried on wind current generated by the movement of trains, began to dissipate soon after it was detected.
Unsure how dangerous the leak was, rail authorities and emergency services opted for caution, knowing it would also lead to chaos. And it did. Shortly after 4pm, thousands of people were lining city streets, waiting for transport, forcing authorities to put on extra buses and ferries.
At Central, the only CBD station still open to passengers, the crush of people became so dangerous that it was closed on public safety grounds.
The stranded crowds either fumed - "It's a disaster," said 22-year-old Jessica Osment - or opted to drink through the drama. Nearby bars and pubs did a roaring trade.
At 5.30, four hours after the drama began and with no sign of leaking gas underground, the system was reopened. But with all trains removed from the city network and a huge backlog to clear, home was still a long way off for thousands.
"I usually get home around 7.30 but tonight it will probably be 9.30," said Graham Smith, trying to get to Thirroul. Another commuter, heading for Gosford, had given up. "I'll probably have to sleep here tonight."
Last night, police could shed no light on the cause of the leak, and would say only that it was not the result of a "sinister" act.
By Malcolm Brown, Ben Cubby and Sunanda Creagh
February 6, 2004
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/02/05/1075854003286.html
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