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December 12, 2012 · The National Transportation Safety Board, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is launching an investigation after a 30" interstate natural gas pipeline owned by Columbia Gas Transmission exploded yesterday afternoon. No deaths have been reported in the explosion that destroyed homes and caused major damage to I-77 near Sissonville.
About 800 feet of roadway along I-77 was severely damaged in the blast that occurred around 12:40 yesterday afternoon. Four homes were leveled and 5 others saw extensive exterior damage.
The area was quickly evacuated as a precaution in case of a second blast, although the flow of gas was stopped about an hour after the explosion.
Rita Cummings lives in the immediate area of the explosion. She felt and heard the blast and also encountered neighbors while evacuating.
"I thought a plane had crashed so I looked outside. It hadn't so I ran out the front door and I could look over the hill and see the flames coming up. Somebody came and said to evacuate. Then, a lady was coming up 21 where the actual fire was-it's called Archibald Hill-there at the foot of Derrick's Creek. She stopped me and asked to use the phone and she said it had leveled her house. She thought it was a plane crash but she was old and scared. But she said that her house was gone."
Another resident, Donna McClung, was having lunch at Aldersgate United Methodist Church when the explosion happened.
"We walked out shortly before 1 o'clock, I think it was. You could look over to the left, looking north, and you could see-you could hear-the gas blowing from that far away. That was probably about, I'd say, at least 2 to 3 miles from the site of the explosion. You could see a glow. So, my husband and I hopped in the car and drove north on 21-got as far as Lake Fork Road. At that point you could see the massive fire and actually feel the heat from it. We were probably a mile away at that point."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox say contractors and repair crews are already working to restore the damaged portion of I-77. Mattox says it's a big job.
"First thing we have to do is mill up the old asphalt. As the governor has stated, it's baked; it's very crumbly. There's a lot of debris all over the roadway. It's about an 800 foot section on each side. We'll be removing the old asphalt down to the original concrete interstate roadway and building that asphalt back up then replacing the guardrails. As the governor has said, the guardrails had melted. The fire was that hot."
Department of Transportation crews are stopping intermittently to allow testing of the gas line to ensure safe repairs.
During a press conference last night at Charleston's Yeager Airport, National Transportation Safety Board Member Robert Sumwalt said the investigation will begin today.
"While we are here, we are just here to collect the perishable evidence-the information that could go away with the passage of time. That's what we are here to do-is to collect and document the perishable evidence. We will be here for about 5 to 7 days and after we leave here we will begin through analysis and continues collect facts but, we will look at things under microscopes and things like that. While we are here we will not determine the cause of the accident."
Sumwalt also said that Columbia Gas reported the pressure at the time of rupture was at 929 pounds per square inch-just under the maximum capacity of 1,000 pounds per square inch.
Columbia Gas issued a statement saying company employees are working with first responders and investigators at the blast site.
Repairs to I-77 will last throughout the day, although state officials say they hope to have the highway reopened by Wednesday evening.
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