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Charred road reopens sooner than expected

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Despite being burnt to a crisp, the 800-foot section of Interstate 77 damaged by Tuesday's major gas line explosion in Sissonville was replaced and reopened Wednesday morning.

The road was reopened to traffic about 8 a.m. Wednesday. Highways officials, who thought repairs would take more than a day to complete, marveled at the effort.  

"It was just an amazing job," Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said.

In less than 15 hours, workers from the state Division of Highways, West Virginia Paving and American Asphalt Co. were able to turn a charred track of scorched asphalt into a nearly pristine stretch of highway.

The Herculean effort drew praise from a grateful public.

"We have a lot of guys that live in the Sissonville area that have been getting calls at home thanking us for doing the work so quickly," West Virginia Paving manager Chet Rodabaugh said.

"We were just glad to be a part of the response and to be able to help out and get it back opened," Rodabaugh said.

When officials surveyed the damage Tuesday, no one expected the road to be reopened by the same time the next day.

"We thought it would take at least 24 hours from when I was over there yesterday evening to clear the interstate," Mattox said.

An experienced highway engineer, Mattox said he had never seen anything close to the damage Tuesday's explosion caused.

"Walking across the pavement was like walking across cinders," he said.

"It was just crunching. The guardrail had melted. It was something like I have never seen before," he said.

"There was rock and debris strewn all over the interstate - it was quite a mess."

Rodabaugh, 31, of Winfield, said company paving crews routinely fix road damage caused by vehicle accidents and fuel spills, but never anything like this.

"I've talked with our guys that have worked here for 30 to 40 years, and this is the worst thing they've seen," he said.

Mattox said three Division of Highways engineers were at the scene within minutes of Tuesday's explosion, which occurred about 12:40 p.m.

After getting initial damage reports, Mattox contacted West Virginia Paving officials in Dunbar to set up the repair project.

"We started getting calls from them about 2 o'clock letting us know they needed us," Rodabaugh said.

News of the explosion and how it had damaged the road spread quickly. Rodabaugh said that helped the company quickly mobilize workers.

"We had a lot of good employees that were called in on a moment's notice, or dropped everything they were doing and came in and said, 'How can we help?' " he said.  

"We had phone calls from other employees across the state saying, 'Hey, let me know if you need me,' " he said.

West Virginia Paving has the ability to make its own asphalt at a plant in Ripley but does not produce it in the winter months. American Asphalt and Aggregates in St. Albans produces year-round.  The company quickly signed up to provide materials.

American provided more than 700 tons of base and surface asphalt to complete the job.  

About 4 p.m., crews were told they were going to be able to start repair work. By 6 p.m., the 10-member crew from West Virginia Paving was beginning to mill the damaged sections.

Mattox said crews were fortunate because the fire didn't damage the underlying concrete as much as initially feared.

Rodabaugh stayed at the site through much of the night to assist but said it was the hard work and versatility of his crew that helped get the job finished so quickly.

"You can't do without good employees," he said. "Everybody stayed calm and positive out there as things kept changing minute by minute, but we had a good crew that was committed to getting the job done."

They had support from the surrounding community as well.

When the crew went to the Sissonville Gino's to pick up pizza, restaurant workers gave them a steep discount. As they got back to the work site, members of the American Red Cross were there to deliver food and coffee.  

Paving of the northbound lanes wrapped up around midnight. After that, work stopped for a couple of hours while crews from NiSource-owned Columbia Gas Transmission conducted pressure checks on area gas lines.

The northbound lanes were painted and reopened around 3:30 a.m. At 8 a.m., crews put the finishing touches on the southbound lanes and police escorted the first cars across the repaired road.

Mattox said the quick reopening was a testament to quality of the state's workforce and the crew members' ability to come together to get the job done.

"It was very well organized," he said. "We couldn't have pulled off that kind of project in that amount of time if you didn't' have good organizational skills."

Rodabaugh chalked up the success to the hard work and efforts of a committed group of people.

"It was just those guys out there busting their hump and getting that work done overnight," he said.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148. 


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