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Man burned in Salem Twp. gas line explosion; homes, businesses evacuated

| Friday, April 29, 2016, 8:39 a.m.
Kevin Spangler
A resident shot this photo of an explosion in Salem Township, Westmoreland County, on Friday, April 29, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Forbes Road Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Rosatti (right) and Roland 'Bud' Mertz, director of Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety, hold a press conference near the site of a natural gas pipeline that exploded in Salem Township near the intersection of Route 819 and Route 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
A fire continues to burn after an explosion in Salem Township, Westmoreland County, on Friday, April 29. 2016.
Valerie Lamanna
A resident shot this photo of an explosion in Salem Township, Westmoreland County, on Friday, April 29, 2016.
Kerry Jobe
Flames shoot into the air after an explosion in Salem Township, Westmoreland County, on Friday, April 29, 2016.
Kerry Jobe
Eve Stape of the Slickville Volunteer Fire Department works the scene of an explosion in Salem Township, Westmoreland County, on Friday, April 29, 3016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Vinyl siding on this home nearby was melted by the radiant heat from a natural gas pipeline that exploded in Salem Township close to the intersection of Routes 819 and 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Emergency management officials look at a map near the site of a natural gas pipeline that exploded in Salem Township near the intersection of Routes 819 and 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
An official from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection examines an area near a natural gas pipeline that exploded in Salem Township near the intersection of routes 819 and 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Charred trees surround a chimney that remains after a home was destroyed as a result of natural gas pipeline explosion in Salem Township near the intersection of Route 819 and Route 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016. The occupant was injured.
Tiffany Pfeifer
A fire burns after an explosion on Friday, April 29, 2016, in Salem Township.
A burned out house is surrounded by charred ground and trees following a natural gas explosion at a pipeline complex on Friday, April 29, 2016, in Salem Township, Pa. The explosion caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural area, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, and prompted authorities to evacuate businesses nearby. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

When Forbes Road fire Chief Bob Rosatti crested a hill near the intersection of Routes 22 and 819 in Salem on Friday morning, blinding flames shooting 300 feet into the air stopped him in his tracks.

A quarter-mile away, he tried to get out of his truck but was beaten back by the heat of the enormous fireball.

“It looked like we were looking down into hell,” he said about the massive explosion of a natural gas pipeline — one of the four largest in the country by capacity — just after 8 a.m. that seriously injured one man, damaged nearby homes and prompted a half-mile evacuation zone.

Federal and state authorities are investigating the explosion of the 30-inch line that crosses half the United States and is operated by Spectra Energy Corp.

Spectra workers were able to shut off gas feeding the fire about an hour after the 8:17 a.m. blast, said John Poister, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The flames blackened fields and scorched trees, destroyed the injured man's brick house and damaged three others scattered amid farmland, the Forbes Road Volunteer Fire Department said. A dozen other homes were evacuated until further notice.

“It kind of looks like a bomb went off,” Rosatti said.

But, he said, “if this would've been closer to Route 22 ... it could've been a real disaster.”

The injured man's home was about 500 yards from the explosion, Rosatti said. Authorities haven't released his name.

The man heard the explosion, looked outside and saw flames, and ran out onto Route 819, Rosatti said.

“The heat was so intense it was burning him while he was running,” Rosatti said.

The victim told emergency workers he thought a tornado had hit, the fire chief said. He was taken to UPMC Mercy in Pittsburgh.

To alleviate pressure in the pipeline so workers can access the site, Spectra started a controlled release of residual gas in the line at 3:45 p.m. Friday at the pump station on Beaver Run Road in Salem, officials said. PennDOT said Route 819 will remain closed through the weekend.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has jurisdiction over the line, will lead the investigation. The state fire marshal and Spectra will assist, said state Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Robin Tilley.

The National Transportation Safety Board is gathering information about the explosion from its headquarters in Washington, spokesman Eric Weiss said.

“We decide if there's something to learn from the accident to prevent other accidents in the future” before launching a full investigation, Weiss said.

The DEP is monitoring air quality on-site and will study any impact on gas wells in the area and environmental impacts from the fire, Poister said.

“Our first concern is for safety of the community, our employees, and any others that may be affected,” company spokesman Creighton Welch said.

The section of pipe involved was built in 1981. An in-line inspection in 2012 revealed no areas requiring repair or remediation, Spectra said.

The explosion was felt at least 5 miles away, and the towering flames blew across Route 819.

Once on the scene, firefighters doused nearby structures with water to protect them, Rosatti said.

The smoke was so voluminous that National Weather Service radar recorded it. Weather service meteorologist Tom Green said the agency's radar in Moon caught the scene from 38 miles away and 2,500 feet up at 8:18 a.m. — one minute after the explosion. Green said radar typically sends images of rain or snowdrops. “Today, it was bouncing off smoke —enough smoke to register and bounce back to us,” he said.

For miles around, people were jolted when they heard or felt the explosion.

“It just felt like an earthquake,” said Tiffany Pfeifer, who was at work at a BP gas station at Routes 22 and 819. When she saw the fireball, she yelled for her boss.

“It was so hot, you could just feel the heat coming,” Pfeifer said.

Firefighters told them to turn off the gas pumps and evacuate.

Township Supervisor Ken Trumbetta had a bird's-eye view from the hilltop municipal building about a mile away. “We heard a loud roar, then ... a big bang,” he said. “We ran around the building right away” and saw flames in the sky.

Secretary Lynn Cain said the building shook.

“We could see the flames and we could hear the gas. It was so scary,” she said. “I can only explain it as a large whooshing sound. The flames were unbelievable.”

Marcy Steward and husband were having coffee at their home off Route 819. “My husband looked out the window and could see the flames. We thought at first it was a plane crash or something happening at the BP gas station. I've never heard anything like that,” she said. Relatives in Slickville, 5 miles north, called to say they felt the explosion.

About 5 miles west in Delmont, the interior doors of Arlene Cassidy Bell's home started rattling.

“I told my husband, ‘I wonder if we are having an earthquake.' I went outside. … It sounded like a jet engine, but not in the sky,” she said. “We heard the sirens. The doors were just rattling, back and forth.”

Neighbor Mark Johnston said he raced home from work in Export and found the siding melted off his house along Route 819. Claridge firefighters had rescued his 18-year-old beagle, Scooter, from inside.

Later, Johnston was able to get a look at the scene: the scorched roadway, rocks and clay strewn about. “It looks like the moon surface,” he said.

About 135 West Penn Power customers lost power.

“We have five poles damaged — burned — somewhat by that explosion,” company spokesman Todd Myers said.

Because the ground was still hot, Myers couldn't predict when crews could start replacing the poles.

It could be Friday night “or later,” he said. “That's a sizeable job.”

The explosion is disrupting natural gas shipments from Western Pennsylvania to the Northeast, Bloomberg reported.

“The company declared force majeure (relief from accountability), at midday, sending natural gas futures surging as much as 5.6 percent on the New York Mercantile Exchange on speculation that the outage will limit supplies to the Northeast,” Bloomberg reported.

Staff writers Renatta Signorini, Dave Conti, Mike Wereschagin, Patrick Varine and Mary Pickels contributed.

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