I-77 reopened after gas pipeline explosion

| Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, 10:50 a.m.

SISSONVILLE, W.Va. — Darrell Sigmon pointed Wednesday to a stone the size of a bowling ball, embedded in the ground a few feet from his house. Inside the home, debris covered the living room floor, remnants of other flying rocks that did not miss.

“I'm moving,” Sigmon said less than 24 hours after he and his girlfriend jumped out a window to escape the fireball of a massive gas line explosion. “I don't want to be anywhere near those gas lines.”

Neighbors surveyed the still-smoking debris of what used to be a quiet, picturesque community before a 20-inch gas line exploded on Tuesday, demolishing four houses and damaging several others. Many people remained in hotels or with family.

What was a lush valley with a creek running through it is charred earth. Stone foundations were all that remained of three houses nearest the blast, which ignited about 1 p.m. near Interstate 77. Mail boxes melted to wood posts stood on the side of Sissonville Drive, still hot to the touch.

Federal officials led work crews out to scour the scene starting at dawn, searching for clues of what caused the blast. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a 10-person team to lead the investigation with support from several federal and local officials. Crews reopened I-77 early Wednesday.

The blast left a nearly 15-foot-deep crater just off the interstate, at the bottom of its 20-foot embankment, said C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County fire coordinator.

Experts said that breaches from accidental bumps during construction or road work are the most common causes of pipeline explosions. But officials do not know of any recent construction or road work in the area, Sigman said.

The underground pipeline was running near its maximum pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch before it blew, officials said. The fireball reached 100 feet high and melted part of Interstate 77 and some guard rails, prompting neighbors and officials from the pipe owner NiSource Inc. to say they were lucky nobody died. Steel melts at about 2,700 degrees.

“It's a miracle,” said Pastor Brad Bennett of Aldersgate Church, where an emergency shelter was set up after the explosion. “We see God's hand of grace in the midst of that. It's devastating for folks who lost their homes and they'll grieve the losses of precious things that'll never be replaced. But nobody was killed and we're so grateful for that.”

The blast simply wiped away some homes.

“I didn't know if an airplane had crashed or of it was an earthquake or a tornado or what,”' said Sue Bonham, 61, still shaking after a sleepless night in a Charleston hotel. “Rocks were coming through my roof like a meteor shower. The ground was moving, like a wave, and smoke was coming up out of the ground like thermal hot springs.”

Down the road, Sigmon and his girlfriend, Lorie Estep, both 41, thought they would burn alive inside their house.

“It was so bright, just a huge wall of flames,” Sigmon said. “I couldn't even look out the front of the house.”

He grabbed his two dogs and yelled for Estep to jump out a window. She panicked and lay down on the ground in the bathroom.

“I told her, ‘If you want to live, you better get going,'” Sigmon said. He jumped out the window, then pulled Estep through after him. They ran to a neighbor's house several hundred yards away, the heat burning their backs as they fled.

NiSource officials told local authorities they monitor the line once a month, using helicopters and infrared cameras to spot leaks, said Sigman, the county fire coordinator. They spoke with a company engineer Wednesday morning who said he was not aware of any problems that turned up from recent inspections.

Columbia Gas Transmission — the pipe's owner and a subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource — was providing most of the information federal investigators were looking for, said Susan Small, a spokeswoman for the state Public Service Commission. A company spokeswoman declined to answer several questions for this story about the safety history of the line, citing the ongoing investigation.

Company officials told first responders not to touch pieces of metal and other possible evidence as they searched for people, Sigman said.

Three Columbia transmission lines go through that area, primarily to transport gas to eastern markets including Washington and Baltimore, Sigman added. A fourth line connected to local gas wells and owned by Viking Energy Corp. crosses those transmission lines, Sigman said.

“It looks terrible: It's all contorted and bent, but as far as we know it never had a leak,” he said. “How that happened, I'll never know.”

As others fled the blast, Rick Withrow drove toward it. He works at a welding shop a couple miles away.

“There was a woman in her pajamas holding on to the guard rail,” Withrow said. “She had her two little dogs with her and she was just shaking.”

Withrow ran to a house on Derrick's Creek Road because he knew an old man lived there. Inside, where he said the temperature was at least 120 degrees, Withrow found Ed Goff, 86, in bed, confused and clutching his chest.

“He kept yelling at me, what are you doing in my house?” Withrow said. “I said, well, sir, your house is melting. We've got to get you out of here.”

He helped Goff from bed and brought him to his truck.

The next day, Goff slept while his stepson, Ken Whittington, 50, examined the home for damage. Whittington and his wife were Christmas shopping when the blast occurred and he credited his stepdad's survival on an “angel” who came to rescue Goff.

“I wanted to check on the old man,” Withrow said as he extended his hand to greet Whittington at his fence. “We pulled him out of there yesterday.”

“That was you?” Whittington said. “I need to thank you, buddy.”

He walked over with tears in his eyes and hugged Withrow.

Chris Togneri and Timothy Puko are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Togneri can be reached at ctogneri@tribweb.com. Puko can be reached at tpuko@tribweb.com.

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