Worker killed when natural gas pipeline explodes in fireball

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by JIM DOUGLAS

Bio | Email | Follow: @wfaajdouglas

WFAA

Posted on June 7, 2010 at 9:49 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 8 at 4:25 PM

Gas line explosion

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JOHNSON COUNTY — A large natural gas line near Cleburne erupted Monday afternoon when utility workers accidentally hit the line, sending a column of fire into the air and leaving one worker missing hours after the blast, officials said.

The worker's body was recovered Monday evening; his name was not released.

Eight others among the 13 at the site were injured. One patient was taken to Texas Health Hospital Fort Worth. Spokeswoman Whitney Jodry did not have that person's condition.

Hood County Emergency Management Coordinator Brian Fine said the worker who died was a subcontractor who was part of a crew digging holes for utility poles.

An initial report of multiple deaths was not correct.

There was only one house within 1/2 mile of the the inferno, and Willie Russell thought it was blowing up with her in it.

She was watching TV when the blast rattled her windows. A wall of heat met her at the front porch.

"It felt like it was just scorching me," she said.

Imagine the point of impact, where 14 workers were digging holes for new power lines. The drill bit punctured a buried 36-inch gas pipeline.

The workers had just a few seconds to run before the gas erupted with a roar that could be heard for miles.

How did 13 of the 14 workers manage to escape?

"I don't know," said Johnson County Emergency Management Coordinator Jack Snow. "A miracle; that's the best way to put it."

Snow said more than a dozen fire departments responded from Hood, Somervell and Johnson counties, but there was little they could do until the gas supply was shut off and the fire burned itself out about two hours later.

Then they knocked down the brush fires triggered by the gas blast and began searching for the missing worker.

"How this happened, we do not know," Snow said.

One official said the gas line was pressurized at 1,000 pounds per square inch; by comparison, the average car tire is 32 psi.

The force of the blast was so strong, it blew an auger that weighs roughly one ton nearly a football field away.

The Johnson County Sheriff reported a total of eight injuries with at least four of the victims out of the hospital Monday night.

State and federal investigators will now try to determine how the power line workers managed to strike the huge natural gas line in an area that's criss-crossed with underground pipes.

"About 2:40 p.m., we heard a loud explosion, rumbling, almost like a tornado. It shook our entire house. The plume of smoke that came out or steam is heading this way, the wind is blowing it right over our house. We are trying to work out whether it is something we need to evacuate or not," said Laura Harlin in Johnson County.

“We don’t really smell anything at this point. It sounds like faraway thunder at this point,” she added. At 3:15 p.m., she said she could still hear the rumbling.

“There is a lot of onlooker traffic in the area,” said Hood County resident Franklin Daniel.

People living in the nearby Pecan Plantation development of about 3,500 homes were told there was no need to evacuate.

Jackie Bricker, a Pecan Plantation resident,   said she wasn't surprised when she heard the blast. "I knew that it was a natural gas explosion — whether it be a well or a pipeline — I knew that."

Bricker said it sounded "like a bomb going off, and it stayed on for about 10 minuets; the sound was deafening ... you couldn't hardly even stand to be outside it was so loud; it was popping and crackling."

Another resident told News 8 she tried to call 911 for help after seeing the explosion, but was unable to reach anyone by phone.

Dirt devils resembling small tornadoes could be seen in the area as the fire burned, a side-effect of the intense heat.

HD Chopper 8 pilot Troy Bush said it appeared that the pipeline was not in the center of its right-of-way, as outlined by a vegetation-free strip of land — a factor that could have led utility line workers to drill where they thought it was safe.

A consultant told WFAA the gas line can be anywhere within the right of way, including right up to the edge. It doesn’t have to be down the middle.

WFAA reporters Chris Hawes and Craig Civale and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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