Natural gas line explodes in north Texas after workers accidentally hit line; 1 person missing

By Angela K. Brown, AP
Monday, June 7, 2010

1 missing after natural gas line blast in Texas

CLEBURNE, Texas — A large natural gas line in north Texas erupted Monday after utility workers accidentally hit the line, sending a massive fireball into the air and leaving one worker missing hours after the blast, officials said.

Johnson County Emergency Coordinator Jack Snow said searchers were scouring the charred area around the damaged line looking for the missing person. Thirteen other workers who were also at the site were accounted for, and there were no known fatalities, he said.

The missing worker had just gotten down from a machine drilling utility pole holes when the line suddenly exploded. Other workers lost sight of him in the intense smoke, said Roger Harmon, Johnson County’s top elected official. Several workers drove themselves to the hospital before emergency crews arrived, so it’s possible that the missing man left the scene on his own, Harmon said.

“I really hope he is at home safe, but we’re still searching,” he said.

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 saying three people had been killed. The official, Cleburne City Manager Chester Nolen, later said that after fire officials and the gas line operator extinguished the fire, he was unsure if anyone was killed.

Heat from the blast forced firefighters to stay about a half-mile away until the gas flow was shut off.

“This could have been way worse,” said Brian Fine, the Hood County emergency management coordinator who was assisting with the explosion.

At least seven of the workers went to the hospital following the explosion. Gary Marks, CEO of Glen Rose Medical Center, said two people were treated and released, and four others were in stable condition. One patient was taken to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. Spokeswoman Whitney Jodry did not have person’s condition.

The gas line is owned by Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners LP. Spokesman Rick Rainey said Enterprise’s control room immediately identified a break in the line near Cleburne, about 50 miles southwest of Dallas. Te 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.

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

The injured workers were digging for a subcontractor hired by Waco-based Brazos Electric Cooperative, Snow said. A message seeking comment from that company was not immediately returned. A spokesman for the subcontractor, Oklahoma-based C&H Power Line Construction Services, did not immediately respond to a call for comment either.

Snow said officials were investigating whether the gas line was marked. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration were also at the scene.

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 Writers Jeff Carlton, Schuyler Dixon and Jamie Stengle in Dallas and Mark Williams in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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