Cumberland Times-News

January 28, 2013

Witness describes horrific W.Va. pipeline inferno


Associated Press

— CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — To Sue Bonham, it was as if the world were coming to an end: A wall of flame had suddenly engulfed her West Virginia neighborhood. Amid a deafening roar, objects began crashing through her ceiling. Her home began melting around her and a nearby house, her step-daughter’s, collapsed in a heap of ashes.

An intense, suffocating heat prevented the Sissonville woman from fleeing her home. She thought of escaping to her in-ground pool — learning later that the flames had driven its water to deadly, scalding temperatures.

“(I was) thinking the earth would open up at any moment and swallow me,” Bonham told a Monday field hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. The chairman, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, held the hearing in his state’s capital city.

The apocalypse Bonham witnessed was a natural gas pipeline explosion. A 1960s-era section of underground pipe had lost 70 percent of its thickness to outside corrosion. It ruptured around 12:41 p.m. on Dec. 11, triggering an inferno that ran the length of nearly four football fields along the pipeline and radiated out by around 840 feet.

The blast hurled a 20-foot section of pipe more than 40 feet. No one was killed or seriously injured. But the explosion and resulting fireball destroyed four homes and charred a stretch of Interstate 77 less than 113 feet away.

Rockefeller convened the hearing seeking lessons from the blast and other recent mishaps.

With his fellow West Virginian, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, Rockefeller heard from government officials, an executive with Sissonville pipeline operator Columbia Gas Transmission and a watchdog group’s founder.