Investigators start probe of deadly gas explosion

by Associated Press

Published: June 8,2010

Tags: accident, explosion, fatality, oil and gas, workplace safety

CLEBURNE, Texas — A natural gas explosion in North Texas killed one member of a crew installing utility poles, and authorities were trying to figure out if the gas line had been marked before digging started.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was among numerous agencies at the scene after a utility crew struck a gas line yesterday afternoon, sending a massive fireball into the air.

The lone utility worker missing after the blast was found dead last night, once searchers could safely walk through the entire charred area. Authorities had hoped the missing man had left the scene on his own, like some of his colleagues who drove themselves to hospitals.

Brian Fine, Hood County’s emergency management coordinator, said the worker’s body was found some distance from the blast site. The man’s name has not been released.

The worker had been riding a truck drilling holes for utility poles when the line suddenly exploded, and other workers lost sight of him in the intense smoke, said Roger Harmon, Johnson County’s top elected official.

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.

At least seven of the other 13 workers who had been working at the site went to hospitals. 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.

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.

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

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.

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, Johnson County’s emergency management coordinator, Jack Snow, said. A message seeking comment from that company was not returned. A spokesman for the subcontractor, Oklahoma-based C&H Power Line Construction Services, did not respond to a call for comment either.

The Texas natural gas blast followed one in West Virginia earlier yesterday. 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.

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