CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Both north and southbound lanes of Interstate 77 at mile marker 111 and 113 were reopened Wednesday morning following a massive gas explosion and fire Tuesday afternoon.
Workers from the state Department of Transportation worked overnight to repair the crumbling road, which melted after the massive fire ripped across the Interstate.
Overnight predictions said crews hoped to have the repairs done by this afternoon. But crews were ahead of schedule with northbound lane repairs finishing before midnight.
Road crews stopped temporarily to let the gas crew test the line and had to leave the worksite. Around 3 a.m., the northbound lanes of I-77 North between the Charleston split and mile-marker 113 were open. W.Va. 21 between Charleston and Pocatalico quickly followed.
Shortly after 7 a.m., crews had about 200 tons of asphalt left to lay on the southbound lanes and around 8 a.m., -- just in time for the morning commute - both lanes were open, according to the DOT's Twitter account.
State Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said walking on the surface of I-77 after the blast and fire "was like walking on the cinder track back in high school." The emulsion bonding the asphalt surface together burned away, leaving a layer of loose gravel on top.
"Initially, I thought it would take at least 24 hours to get I-77 reopened, but thanks to a coordinated effort by our crews and crews from American Asphalt Paving and West Virginia Paving, we had all lanes in both directions open by 8 a.m."
The rapid repairs were made in spite of a three-hour, middle-of-the-night shutdown to allow gas crews to test repairs to the line. An 800-foot long segment of the freeway had to be milled down though its asphalt surface material to its concrete layer, and then receive a new layer of asphalt. Heat-melted guardrails were replaced, and the driving lanes were re-striped.
Four homes were destroyed and five others were damaged when the gas line exploded, shooting flames 80 to 90 feet in the air.
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.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were at the scene this morning to begin gathering physical evidence for a detailed probe of the incident.
During a briefing Tuesday night at Yeager Airport, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt described the pipeline that blew up as being a 30-inch-diameter interstate transmission line owned by NiSource subsidiary Columbia Natural Gas Transmission. Previously, local officials had said the incident involved a 20-inch pipeline.
This afternoon, in a statement issued on Twitter, the NTSB said the company had originally told agency officials it was a 30-inch line, but NTSB investigators later confirmed it was actually a 20-inch pipe.
Sumwalt also said that NiSource reported the pressure inside the pipeline at the time of the blast was 929 pounds per square inch, compared to the line's "maximum allowable" pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch.
The NTSB is an independent government agency that investigates civil transportation accidents. The board has no regulatory or enforcement authority, but instead issues reports that detail why accidents occur and recommends changes industry and regulatory agencies could make to avoid future incidents.
"This is just the beginning of the investigation," Sumwalt told reporters.
"It could be weeks before we know the cause of the explosion," state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato said Wednesday morning. "The NTSB folks on the scene now are taking photos, interviewing witnesses and taking metallurgical samples that will have to be analyzed later."
Gianato said the first report of the explosion incorrectly stated that the Cedar Ridge Center nursing home had blown up, "so we were expecting a lot of casualties."
It turned out that Cedar Ridge was not damaged in the blast, though it did lose power and phone service, and had to make use of a generator and cell phones, although several homes in the vicinity were destroyed or damaged.
"It's a miracle no one happened to be home in those places when the explosion happened," Gianato said. "And with the volume of traffic that travels on the interstate, we were very fortunate that no cars were damaged on I-77 or Route 21."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin praised first responders, emergency medical service crews, volunteer firefighters, State Police and Kanawha County Sheriff's deputies, highway contractors and Division of Highways crews for efficiently managing the emergency.
"After this, I think we will see more inspection and testing of pipelines going on," he added.