Officials seek answers in Johnson County gas line explosion

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by CYNTHIA VEGA and JIM DOUGLAS

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WFAA

Posted on June 8, 2010 at 5:49 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 8 at 5:49 PM

JOHNSON COUNTY — The company whose utility workers accidentally hit and ruptured a gas line, killing one worker, says its crew followed the proper procedures in locating that line before digging.

Fred Haag, chief operating officer of Oklahoma-based C&H Power Line Construction Services, said Tuesday that the crew made calls to verify the gas line's location at the site near Cleburne.

"The gas was reported. The guys on the crew heard it spew from a distance — quite a loud noise — and then there was an eruption of flame and everybody took off running," Haag told reporters.

Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams said calls had been made to locate the line, adding that his agency is investigating what was said during those calls.

"Did they then dig where they said they were going to dig? And that has to be part of the next part of the inquiry," Williams said.

Gas trunk lines are supposed to be regulated and anyone digging near them is required to call to the Texas Excavation Safety System to pinpoint their location.

Authorities identified the man killed in Monday's blast as 45-year-old James Robert Neese of Ramona, Okla. Neese had seven children, and his family had been living in a recreational vehicle nearby; they would have seen and felt Monday's explosion.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are also investigating the blast.

Neese's body has been found 200 yards from the blast. The worker was in a truck, drilling holes for utility poles, when the line exploded, and other workers lost sight of him in the intense smoke.

Near the blast site in rural Johnson County, about 50 miles southwest of Dallas, officials later found the truck upside down and saw that the 2,000-pound drilling component had been ripped off the vehicle and hurled 250 feet away, said Cleburne Fire Chief Clint Ishmael.

Eight others were hurt in the blast. Most of them suffered burns on the back of their backs and neck.

At a Glen Rose motel where the C&H construction crew was staying, a burned colleague said he was laughing with Neese — whose nickname was "Gator" — just three minutes before the explosion.

One worker said Neese didn't deserve to die for something that wasn't his fault.

Heat forced firefighters to stay about a half-mile away from the blast, until the gas flow was shut off, and they were unable to douse the flames.

Glen Rose Hospital said it had treated six of the victims, of which five have been released. One remains at the hospital in fair condition.

One patient was taken to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth on Monday. Whitney Jodry, a spokeswoman for that hospital, said she didn't know whether that person was still being treated there.

Laura Harlin, a resident of nearby Granbury, said around the time of the blast she heard a "huge rumbling" that initially sounded like thunder and then like a tornado because it lasted so long.

"For about 10 minutes, it was so loud that it was like there was an 18-wheeler rumbling in your driveway," she said.

The explosion caused confusion among officials in its immediate aftermath, with one city official initially saying three people had been killed.

A control room at Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners LP, which owns the gas line, immediately identified a break in the line near Cleburne, said company spokesman Rick Rainey. The 36-inch line was equipped with valves that automatically shut down gas to that section of pipe, and the fire was out about two hours after the explosion.

Rick Rainey, a representative for Enterprise Products, said the massive transmission line should have been clearly marked. "At this point, there's nothing to indicate that the proper protocols were not followed."

The pipeline carries gas from West Texas across the state to utilities, distribution companies and commercial users in the eastern part of the state. Rainey said the company would work with customers to avoid any disruption to their service from the fire.

The Texas natural gas blast followed one in West Virginia earlier Monday. Seven workers were burned when a drilling crew hit a pocket of methane gas, triggering an explosion in a rural area about 55 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

E-mail: cvega@wfaa.com

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