SISSONVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — Federal investigators are looking into why no alarms sounded as a massive natural gas explosion sent flames as high as hilltops, engulfing homes and a large section of an interstate for more than an hour.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board will visit Columbia Gas Transmission's Charleston control room this week to try to learn why the company's alarm system failed, agency spokesman Robert Sumwalt said Wednesday evening.
It took Columbia more than an hour — approximately 64 minutes — to manually stop the flow of gas to the pipe about 15 miles away at Sissonville on Tuesday, Sumwalt said. While some companies have installed automatic shut-off valves, they are not required.
The 20-inch transmission pipe exploded around midday Tuesday, destroying four homes, cooking a section of Interstate 77, a major north-south commuting corridor that passes through the capital city, and creating a crater 17 feet deep. Several people were treated for smoke inhalation, but there were no fatalities.
"Part of our investigation will be looking to see if this pipe was shut down in a reasonable and prudent fashion," Sumwalt said.
Teams with the parent company, Indiana-based NiSource, are working alongside investigators, and the company says it is cooperating fully. After the investigation is finished, NiSource said, it will "take any follow-up actions necessary to ensure the continued safe operation of our system."
The pipeline is part of a network that primarily serves local utilities but also delivers gas to Georgia. NiSource says the explosion affected one specific location "and does not affect the safety or operation of any pipelines outside of that immediate area."
Nearly 15,000 miles of natural gas pipeline stretch across West Virginia. Federal regulators say there have been 20 "significant" pipeline incidents involving deaths, injuries or major property damage in West Virginia in the past decade.
The damage from Tuesday's blast and the inferno it sparked were breathtaking. Four homes burned and collapsed. Five others were damaged. On the highway, the heat burned utility poles and melted guardrails and pavement. Road crews worked throughout the night to reopen an 800-foot damaged section of the interstate Wednesday.
With many people at work or school at the time, no one died. But at least one motorist was still shaky long after the fire was out.
Sancha Adkins, a respiratory therapist from St. Albans, was heading north on I-77 toward a patient's home in Ripley when a flash alongside the highway caught her eye. She slammed on the brakes and pulled to the shoulder, as did the tractor-trailer behind her, just in time to see a wall of flame roar across the road about 150 feet ahead of her.
She tried to back up, but the truck behind her wasn't doing the same fast enough.
"I did a U-turn in the middle of the road and literally drove the wrong way on the interstate. I had my hazard lights on flashing, just trying to tell people to get out of the way," she said.
There was oncoming traffic as she hugged the berm on the median.
"I didn't care," she said. "It wasn't as bad as that explosion."