Natural Gas Pipeline Explodes, Burns Man at Nearby Home

April 2016, Vol. 243, No. 4

A natural gas explosion at a Pennsylvania pipeline complex sent flames hundreds of feet into the air on Friday and burned a nearby home, injuring the man who lived there, officials said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said the blast was traced to a 36-inch pipeline, which exploded into a fireball in Salem Township, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, and spread to a nearby wooded area. Trees were reduced to towering charred slivers, and the blaze melted the vinyl siding off another home.

“It looked like you were looking down into hell,” Forbes Road Volunteer Fire Chief Bob Rosatti said.

The pipeline was shut off and the fire was put under control within an hour, but officials said residual gas could continue to burn for several hours.

The injured man’s condition was not immediately released, but authorities said he was taken by ambulance to the burn unit of a Pittsburgh hospital.

The complex is owned by Texas Eastern Transmission, a unit of Houston-based Spectra Energy Corp. of Houston.

The pipeline that exploded is one of four owned by Texas Eastern that run through the rural tract that Pete Rugh, 84, has called home his entire life.

“It scared the heck out of me. I heard this terrible roar. It shook to beat the devil,” Rugh said.

“The noise was so great I couldn’t hear anybody on the phone,” Rugh said. “The room where I was sitting turned orange. I thought the fire was closer to me than it was, so I grabbed my keys, got in my vehicle and got out of there.”

Rugh said he doesn’t know the injured man, but said the victim’s home is “burned, it’s ruined.” His sister-in-law’s house is close enough that the siding on her garage melted off.

DEP spokesman John Poister said a quarter-mile evacuation zone was being maintained until further notice, which included about a dozen homes.

The state Public Utility Commission will lead the investigation into the fire, which has already begun at the scene. The DEP, a state fire marshal and the pipeline company were also investigating, but results aren’t expected for weeks, Poister said. The DEP will also investigate any impact on gas wells in the area and any environmental impacts from the fire.

“Our first concern is for the safety of the community, our employees, and any others who may be affected,” according to a statement released by Spectra spokesman Creighton Welch. The company didn’t immediately release other details.

Lorrie Sherman-Miller lives in Slickville, about 5 miles from the site, and said she’s used to hearing a “rumble” from the rushing sound of gas when crews perform maintenance.

“But the sound this morning was magnified 1,000 times,” Sherman-Miller said.

Sherman-Miller drove toward the site because she knows some people who live in the area, and parked at a BP gasoline station about a quarter mile from the fire to see it.

“As I drove to the site, the closer I got, the hotter it became. The sky and the flames were terrifying,” she said. “When I pulled in to the BP it was so hot that I couldn’t leave my window down. Steam was coming off the parking lot and the roads,” which were damp from earlier rains.

Rugh said Texas Eastern installed the first natural gas pipeline on his property in 1958.

“I’ve always feared this, but I’ve never had any problems before,” Rugh said.

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