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December 11, 2012

Interstate 77 reopens after W.Va. gas inferno

Flames shoot 50 to 75 feet into the air; no injuries immediately reported

SISSONVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — Contractors worked through the night scraping away burned asphalt and repaving an 800-foot swath of Interstate 77 charred by a massive natural gas line explosion and fire that also flattened four homes and damaged five more but caused no deaths.

The Tuesday afternoon blast between Sissonville and Pocatalico, about 15 miles outside the capital city of Charleston, melted guardrails, cooked the green enamel off highway signs and burned utility poles, while leaving a huge hole in the highway.

The northbound lanes reopened early Wednesday and traffic began flowing on the southbound lanes a few hours later.

Though several people were treated for smoke inhalation, no serious injuries were reported either on or off the major commuter route.

But hours afterward, respiratory therapist Sancha Adkins was still shaky. She was heading north toward a patient's home in Ripley, a tractor-trailer behind her, when a flash alongside the highway caught her eye.

"And then I just see this whole huge ball of fire, and I'm slamming on the brakes and pulling off to the side of the road, and then the flames come across the road in front of me," she said, still breathless and nearly hysterical hours later. "I saw parts of something — I don't know what it was, a house maybe? — exploding."

A wall of flame roared across the highway about 150 feet in front of her car, she said, and she tried to back up on the shoulder. So did the truck behind her, which was able to stop without rear-ending her vehicle.

"But that wasn't fast enough for me," said Adkins, 36, of St. Albans. "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."

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