SISSONVILLE, W.Va. -- A gas line exploded in Sissonville on Tuesday afternoon, leading to a massive blaze that destroyed houses, sent flames shooting nearly 100 feet into the air on both sides of Interstate 77 and melted asphalt and guardrails on the highway.
No one was killed in the explosion and fire. Several people were treated for smoke inhalation, either at the scene or at local hospitals. But everyone was accounted for, and no one was seriously injured in the blast, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at an afternoon briefing.
Four homes were destroyed and five others were damaged when the 20-inch gas line exploded, shooting flames 80 to 90 feet in the air, Tomblin said.
The blast destroyed an 800-foot section of road on both sides of Interstate 77 between the 112 and 114 mile markers.
"Apparently we were very lucky," said Tom Miller of the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department. "It was mid-afternoon, there was no rush-hour traffic.
Tomblin agreed. "We were very fortunate that at the time of the explosion there were no vehicles in the proximity."
The gas line is owned by NiSource Inc., the parent company of Columbia Gas.
The explosion was reported just before 1 p.m. at 2001 Teresa Lane in Sissonville, Miller said. The actual explosion was about a half-mile north of that address, he said.
After the explosion, the fire crossed I-77 and burned on both sides of the highway. It was extinguished after about an hour, but authorities worried about the possibility of a second explosion and evacuated some residents from the area.
Some residents whose homes were damaged were sent to a local hotel by the gas company. A shelter was opened at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Sissonville, and some people were treated for smoke inhalation there.
Pat Taylor, shelter coordinator, said many who came there had lost electricity from the explosion's aftermath. More than 45 people visited the shelter throughout the evening as service was restored.
One family would sleep over at the shelter Tuesday night and more would be back for breakfast Wednesday morning, he said.
Two or three people called the church asking how to help families who lost everything, Taylor said. He forwarded those people to someone collecting donations. He said his church would be interested in raising more money for the victims this week.
Kanawha County Fire Coordinator C.W. Sigman said emergency crews rescued several people who sought shelter behind burning homes.
"In all my years of experience, this is the biggest fire I've ever seen," Sigman said.
Several people compared the roar of the fire to the jet engine of an airplane.
State Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox called paving crews to immediately begin work repairing I-77, Transportation spokeswoman Carrie Bly said.
The blaze damaged about 800 feet of roadway on both sides of the interstate beginning at the Sissonville exit, Bly said.
"Crews are making their way up there and they will have to start digging up asphalt to grind it down to the concrete," she said. "We are talking about 4 or 5 inches of asphalt."
Officials hope to have the interstate back open by around 5 p.m. Wednesday, Mattox said.
State officials worried that they might have problems finding asphalt for the job, since many asphalt plants have closed for the winter. But West Virginia Paving, which has been contracted to do the work, found a company - American Asphalt Company -- that makes asphalt year-round, Mattox said.
Contractors will also have to replace guardrails, which melted in the heat, he said. A green interstate sign was charred a grayish-white color.
Bly said the goal is to repair at least one lane of the interstate on both sides to let traffic through.
Late Tuesday night, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said that a 10-member NTSB team would talk to witnesses and investigate "perishable evidence" like soil samples over the next five to seven days. Investigators also will examine the gas pipes themselves before oxidation sets in.
Speaking to reporters at Yeager Airport, Sumwalt said the NTSB learned from Columbia Gas officials that the pressure inside the transmission line at the time of the rupture was 929 pounds per square inch (PSI). The maximum PSI of the pipe is 1,000 pounds.
"Our mission is to determine not only what happened but to determine why it happened," Sumwalt said.NTSB investigators will be meeting with Columbia Gas representatives over the next several days, he said.
Tomblin said he saw the explosion site firsthand.
"When you're walking up to the area, the asphalt still felt like it was burning underneath you," Tomblin said. "So your feet were hot. It was like walking on a volcano."
Students at four area schools - Flinn Elementary, Sissonville Elementary, Sissonville Middle and Sissonville High - were all told to shelter in place at their schools. Kanawha County school officials said students were being taken home late Tuesday afternoon.
Besides I-77, County Route 21 was closed except for emergency vehicle traffic.
Traffic on Route 21 heading north was diverted at every major intersection between Edens Fork and Sissonville High School. Traffic trapped between the high school and the scene of the fire - about three-quarters of a mile past Legg Fork Road - was turned around and sent back southward.
The Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority stationed several ambulances at the Top Spot restaurant, more than a mile from the scene of the explosion.
"It was an incredibly violent explosion," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. He said the force of the blast uprooted a huge section of pavement from Route 21 and sent it careening into another part of the road and into the adjoining hillside. "It looked like a missile hit it," he said.
"One house was totally obliterated," Carper said.
Emily McComas, a Charleston Gazette copy editor, said she was sitting inside her apartment at Jenna Landing Apartments when her lights began flickering just before 1 p.m.
"That's when I heard something that sounded like a jet was directly overhead," McComas said. "I thought it was a tornado."
She then stepped outside the apartment building, which is about two miles from the scene of the explosion, and saw large flames shooting up. She said power to her apartment building and several adjacent buildings was out.
About 8,000 Kanawha County customers were without power at the height of the fire. Fewer than 500 remained without service Tuesday night, according to Appalachian Power's website.
Some reports said Cedar Ridge Health Care Center, a senior assisted-nursing home, was damaged. But the building was never on fire and no one there was in danger, Metro 911 dispatchers said.
After the fire was out, emergency responders began checking on residents in nearby homes and apartments, said State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous.Baylous said a smartphone picture of the fire taken by a passerby showing a wall of flames crossing both lanes of I-77 "was one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen."
Staff writers Rick Steelhammer, Rusty Marks and Zac Taylor contributed to this report.
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