SISSONVILLE, W.Va. — A natural gas transmission line exploded into an inferno near this West Virginia community on Tuesday afternoon, destroying or damaging nine homes and leaving a badly burned section of Interstate 77 closed.
“We've been very fortunate,” said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who toured the damage in an area about 10 miles north of Charleston and then briefed the media. “They were just lucky enough not to be home,” he said of the people whose homes burned. Most were at work. One man had just left to go hunting, Tomblin said.
There were no fatalities and no serious injuries, but two people were treated for smoke inhalation. Intense flames kept firefighters at bay for hours.
Chevalier Mayes, spokeswoman for NiSource Gas Transmission & Storage, said one of its subsidiaries owns the 20-inch line that exploded. Company officials don't know what caused the blast that occurred shortly before 1 p.m.
The company and state and federal officials are investigating.
“Initial damage reports from the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management indicate four homes have been completely destroyed (and) five homes have suffered significant exterior damage,” Tomblin said.
Betty Carter, 66, and her husband, Keith Carter, 76, who live about a mile from the site of the explosion, were watching television when the power shut off, they said. Then came a frightening roar.
“It went from dead silent to this big noise, this big rushing wind,” Betty Carter said. “I thought, what in the world is that? I thought it was a tornado coming. That sound — it's a terrible thing.”
Keith Carter said he went out on the porch to find the source of the roar. “I just heard that big noise, but I didn't know where it was coming from,” he said.
The couple stayed Tuesday night at a shelter at Aldersgate Church because their house became too cold without power, they said.
About 50 people sought refuge there, church pastor Brad Bennett said. NiSource rented 10 hotel rooms for people needing a place to stay.
Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission, said flames shot 50 to 75 feet into the air before the fire was extinguished.
“It sounded like a Boeing 757. Just a roar,” he said. “It was huge. You just couldn't hear anything. It was like a space flight.”
Had the blast occurred at night or on a weekend when more people are home, NiSource Gas Senior Land Agent Bruce Reynolds said, the devastation would have extended beyond property damage,.
“People were gone. It's wonderful. It's such a blessing,” Reynolds said.
Mayes said the company redirected gas from the damaged line to its customers. She said she was not certain where the line came from or its destination and did not have information about its safety history.
NiSource subsidiaries active in gas transmission were involved in at least 80 incidents since 2002, according to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. A Tribune-Review analysis of the data shows the incidents resulted in one fatality, six injuries and nearly $1 million in damage to property other than the company's.
Anna Kaplan, a NiSource communications manager, said in a statement on Tuesday's explosion that, “Our first priority is the safety of the community and our employees. ... We are working to gather additional details and will share more information as it becomes available.”
The impact zone from the incident stretched 800 feet on either side of the highway, state Transportation Secretary Paul A. Mattox Jr. said.
The fire was so hot it melted all the guardrails, Mattox added. All the oil from the asphalt had baked off, leading the surface to start crumbling to the original concrete, Tomblin said.
A 20-inch pipeline is about half as big as the country's biggest transmission lines, experts said. Still, it could carry several hundred million cubic feet of gas per day, said Dave Messersmith, a Penn State University extension educator who tracks pipelines.
West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania are key spots on the country's transmission pipeline grid, the superhighways that transport large quantities of the fuel. More than a dozen flow between the states, helping connect the populous Northeast with the gas-rich Gulf Coast, Messersmith said.
The region — among the first exploration and mass storage sites for natural gas — has some of the oldest pipelines in the country, said Peggy Williams, editorial director at Hart Energy, an industry publisher in Houston. They range in age from the 1950s to more modern lines, experts said.
West Virginia has one of the best state-level pipeline safety programs, said Brigham McCown, a Dallas lawyer and consultant who was the first acting head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. NiSource is the parent company of Columbia Gas and has touted its spending on Columbia's modernization programs, he noted.
“Any time there's a natural gas line break that results in an explosion, my personal view is that that's a catastrophic incident,” McCown said. “This certainly ranks up there insofar as a dramatic effect. I'd say it ranks in the top five I've seen.”
The interstate will remain closed while engineers and inspectors repair the damage and assess whether a bridge was compromised, said State Police Sgt. Chris Zerkle.
Chris Togneri, Brian Bowling and Timothy Puko are Trib Total Media staff writers. The Associated Press contributed to this report.