NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A leak in a large propane gas tank at a Long Island shopping center forced residents out of 900 homes before dawn on New Year’s Day and shut down a swath of roads and railroad service for hours.

Residents of a roughly square-mile section of Shirley, located in Suffolk County, were told to get out around 1:30 a.m. Saturday, shortly after a propane delivery driver discovered a broken valve in a 30,000-gallon tank near a Kohl’s department store.

red cross helps evacuees Gas Leak Fixed After Evacuation Of 900 L.I. Homes

American Red Cross workers help Long Island evacuees. (credit: CBS 2)

The leak was fixed around 3 p.m. Saturday, about 14 hours after it was discovered. Late Saturday evening, CBS 2 learned that residents were being allowed to return to their homes.

Authorities had taken propane readings at each home to make sure it was safe for residents to return, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said.

Earlier in the day, Levy told 1010 WINS’ Terry Sheridan it was “just a matter of time before” residents would be able to return.

1010 WINS’ Terry Sheridan reports

While no one was hurt by the gas, safety concerns spurred authorities to clear out the area. Hundreds of evacuees spent part of the holiday in relatives’ homes, in local diners and at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, which was opened as an emergency shelter.

Some arrived in pajamas and slippers, said Craig Cooper, a spokesman for the American Red Cross’ Suffolk County Chapter.  The SPCA was also on hand to care for animals.

“We got the animals. We gotta pack up, we gotta get out of here,” resident Carol Delage told CBS 2’s Derricke Dennis, describing how she headed to the highway in her minivan.

“And this is like a reality check because God forbid, Long Islanders really have to get off the island. Look around at the traffic and everything, we’d never get off,” she said.

WCBS 880’s Kelly Waldron reports

Stretches of the Sunrise Highway, Montauk Highway and some other major thoroughfares were closed in the area, and the Long Island Rail Road replaced trains with buses in the area for about 11 hours. Some 40 fire and ambulance departments and a host of other agencies had converged on the shopping plaza.

One woman who spoke with 1010 WINS’ Steve Sandberg said this wasn’t the way she wanted to spend her New Year’s Day.

1010 WINS’ Steve Sandberg reports

“About ten to three, I heard somebody banging. There was about six or eight police cars on the block and I live on a short block, right next to Kohl’s. I asked them ‘what’s going on’ and [they] said ‘you need to evacuate.'”

“We just grabbed what we could and left,” she said.

“We just got in the house, slept for maybe an hour, and all of a sudden somebody was banging on the door,” Phillip Cali said.

The tank may have been about half-full, Levy said. Propane, which is heavier than air and flammable, can collect at low points. Had there been a blast, it could have affected the entire square-mile area, fire officials said.

“We didn’t want to take any chances,” Levy said.

The gas wasn’t directly linked to any medical problems, but one man was taken from the school shelter to a hospital because he needed medication he’d left at home, Cooper said.

(TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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