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'You'd think it was the end of the world'

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Flames shoot across Interstate 77 in front of an emergency vehicle Tuesday after a gas line explosion in Sissonville.

SISSONVILLE, W.Va. -- Phyllis Spaulding was watching television in her Pocatalico apartment Tuesday afternoon when she felt the blast.

"I heard an explosion," she said. "It knocked me plumb off the couch into the floor."

What she felt was a gas line explosion that sparked a huge fire on both sides of Interstate 77 between Charleston and the Jackson County line.

Spaulding, whose apartment on Teresa Lane is within a mile of the explosion site, could see the flames from her home. She was one of the first to call 911 and report the explosion.

"They told me to evacuate," Spaulding said. "I grabbed my little dog and I was gone. It was awful."

Many residents in Sissonville, Pocatalico and surrounding areas told similar stories Tuesday afternoon, as emergency responders worked to put out the fire and make sure everyone was safe.

"You could hear a roar, just a constant noise, like an acetylene torch, only a whole lot louder, for about 15 minutes," said Douglas Johnson, an employee of the Top Spot restaurant who was helping unload a food truck outside the business Tuesday.

"All the customers and everybody behind the counter came outside to try to see what it was, but we really couldn't see anything," Johnson said. "The power surged a couple of times and then went out."

"It shook the ornaments off the tree and kept roaring -- you'd think it was the end of the world," said Rita Cummings, who lives at Pocatalico Village Apartments on Teresa Lane, within a half mile of the ruptured line.

"A woman who lives just down the road drove up, still wearing her pajamas, and asked to use the phone," Cummings said. "She said a plane had hit her home" causing it to catch fire.

"She was confused and panicked, but I could see how you would think that."

Before paramedics checked on residents, Robin Fields of Charleston said she was concerned for her best friend's husband, who lives in a trailer near the scene of the explosion.

Friends reported to her the trailer was completely destroyed in the explosion and resulting blaze. No one had heard from the man, she said.

Authorities later said everyone has been accounted for and that no one is dead or seriously injured.

The flames melted the asphalt and guardrails on I-77, and state transportation officials expected the highway to be closed until at least Wednesday afternoon. That meant serious headaches for some drivers, including those who had to detour onto Interstate 79 North because they weren't allowed on I-77.

Many travelers who had an unexpected change in plans pulled off the nearest I-79 exit -- Mink Shoals -- and pulled out their cellphones and maps. Several ended up at Harding's restaurant, just off the exit, to ask for directions and get their bearings.

Linda Blowe of Columbus, Ohio, sat inside Harding's as she studied her large atlas, searching for a new route home.

"I'm doing it the old-fashioned way. I have no GPS," Blowe said, as she discovered two alternate routes home.

Cleveland resident Pauline Baraw had also planned to take I-77 the whole way home. She stopped at the Sleep Inn next to Harding's around 4:15 p.m. Tuesday to look at her map, and hotel workers helped her find a different route north.

"If you don't have a GPS, then you definitely are going to be lost," Baraw said, "so I'm trying to rely on my old atlas."

Tom Frost, an employee at the Sleep Inn, said a couple of West Virginians already had checked into the hotel because they didn't think they would be able to get back home Tuesday night.

Frost said one woman was concerned that she didn't have spare clothes or a toothbrush but she was "handling it really well," he said.

John Harrison was worried about getting home, too. He lives a few miles from Sissonville High School, and he saw some TV coverage of the explosion while he was bowling in Spring Hill.

"The sheriff told me we could get back on 77 in two hours or two days," said Harrison, who met his wife at Harding's. "I sure hope it's not two days."

Staff writers Megan Workman and Travis Crum contributed to this report.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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