NORTH ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) _ Thousands of Christmas shoppers were evacuated from one of the largest malls in New England Saturday after workers at a nearby construction site ruptured a major natural gas line.

An estimated 20,000 shoppers at the Emerald Square Mall and other stores, along with the residents of several hundred nearby homes, were evacuated after the accident, Fire Chief Robert Coleman said.

A fireball may have risen from the breached pipe, but it was blown out by the force of the gas itself, officials said. The operator of the bulldozer that pierced the line received minor injuries.

The gas flow from the 16-inch main was shut off within two hours and some people were allowed to go home, but stores and the mall, billed as New England's third largest, remained closed.

Shopper Diane Wallace could hear the roar of the gas in the parking lot of a shopping center about a mile from the leak: ``It sounds like a jet plane taking off.''