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."
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.
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.