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Gas line explosion creates interstate inferno

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Four homes were destroyed, two people were injured, a portion of Interstate 77 was scorched and area residents were told to evacuate their homes Tuesday when a massive fireball erupted from a 20-inch gas line in northern Kanawha County.

The line, operated by NiSource-owned Columbia Gas Transmission, exploded near Teresa Lane in Sissonville about 12:40 p.m., sending flames more than 100 feet into the air during the hour-long inferno.

Both injured persons suffered smoke inhalation and were expected to make full recoveries, authorities said.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin surveyed the damage Tuesday afternoon before speaking with reporters at Sissonville High School. He said the 800-foot section of Interstate 77 damaged in the blast appeared "baked" and the explosion "blew a huge hole open" in a tract of land near the interstate.

"We were very fortunate that at the time of the explosion there were no vehicles in proximity to the site," Tomblin said.

The governor walked on the charred road. He said the asphalt still was sizzling and he could feel the heat through the soles of his shoes.

"It was like walking on a volcano," he said.

As for those who lived in the immediate vicinity of the explosion, Tomblin said, "They were just lucky enough not to be home. That's the fortunate thing here."

(Photos of gas blast shared on social media.)

The explosion prompted a call from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who chairs a Senate committee that oversees pipeline safety, for an immediate investigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration would both conduct investigations, Rockefeller's office said.

"I will continue monitoring today's developments, with hope for everyone's continued safety, as we await a determination of the cause of this accident," Rockefeller said in a Tuesday evening statement.

NTSB officials were scheduled to land at Yeager Airport in Charleston at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Tom Miller, spokesman for the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department, said firefighters were called out at 12:41 p.m. for an explosion reported about a half mile north of 2001 Teresa Lane. He said the 20-inch natural gas transmission line catastrophically failed, causing the explosion.

The explosion created a blast zone about a quarter-mile wide from east to west, Miller said. Four houses in the immediate area were destroyed and the area was evacuated.

The north and southbound lanes of I-77 were "completely impassable," Miller said.

State Police Sgt. Michael Baylous said during a 3 p.m. press conference Tuesday that I-77 could be shut down for an "extended period of time."

Later in the day, highways officials said they expected the road would be reopened by this afternoon, if not sooner. Northbound interstate traffic was being diverted to I-79.

Students at Flinn Elementary and Sissonville High, Middle and Elementary schools were at first told to shelter-in-place. Officials later allowed parents to pick up students, and high school students who lived nearby could walk or drive home. Buses were on the way to pick up the rest by about 6 p.m.

Sissonville Elementary was without power, but the other three schools had service.  

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper was on the scene with emergency officials and said the extent of the damage was unknown, as was the cause.

Carper said flames were shooting at least 175 feet into the air when he arrived on the scene. The heat from the fire charred the asphalt in the north and southbound lanes of Interstate 77, causing the road to crumble. The extreme heat melted the steel guardrails and was melting vinyl and aluminum siding on houses hundreds of feet from the blast site, he said.

"There were still some hotspots going 30 minutes after the gas was shut off," Carper said.

There were concerns about the fumes that could have been produced by the extreme heat, but Carper said recent rainy weather conditions were "just right" to prevent that.   

"This was our Christmas miracle," Carper said. "If this had happened at night or during rush hour, it's hard to tell how many fatalities we would have had."

Miller said a secondary search for injured persons would be conducted Tuesday evening.

"We'll go board by board and brick by brick," he said. "Anything we find out there could potentially be evidence."

An emergency shelter was set up at Aldersgate United Methodist Church along Kanawha County Route 21 in the community of Sissonville.  

Shelter director Pat Taylor said only a few people were using the shelter as of 3 p.m., but he expected more as the evening wore on.

At least one woman was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation and shortness of breath.

Taylor said the woman, 65, lived near the explosion site and walked into the shelter coughing.

"She was in need of some dry clothes - I'm not sure how she got wet," he said.

There are about 4,000 miles of gas transmission lines in West Virginia, plus thousands more miles of smaller gas lines.

Transmission lines are the largest of gas pipelines. They take highly pressurized gas across long distances.

Since 2002, there has been one injury and $11.5 million in property damage because of incidents at transmission lines in West Virginia, according to the federal pipeline administration.

Columbia Gas-owned pipelines in the state have been involved in 10 "significant" incidents, which involve $50,000 or more in damage or at least one hospitalization.

Nationally, the leading cause of pipeline accidents is third-party damage - often those are lines being struck by an incautious contractor.

But one of the most recent large explosions in the country occurred because of oversights by a pipeline's owner, according to federal investigators.

In fall 2009, a 30-inch transmission line ruptured in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight and injuring many more. It also destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70 others. After a yearlong investigation, the NTSB concluded Pacific Gas and Electric Co. overlooked or ignored industry standards.

Writers Jared Hunt and Ry Rivard contributed to this report.


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