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'I'll be burned alive'

SISSONVILLE, W.Va. -- Sue Bonham had her purse over her arm and was on the way out the door of her Sissonville home Tuesday afternoon when she got a phone call from Jeff's Appliances.

The call probably saved her life.

Moments later, Bonham's neighborhood erupted in a massive gas line explosion and fire that sent a tower of flame shooting a hundred feet in the air and enveloping Interstate 77, just south of the Sissonville/Pocatalico exit.

"I would have been right out in the road when it happened," a still-shaken Bonham remembered this morning.

When the 20-inch gas pipeline burst into flames just before 1 p.m. Tuesday, Bonham didn't know what had happened. She didn't know if an airplane had crashed, but she felt the world shudder.

Then rocks began coming through the ceiling.

"I dove under my dining room table," Bonham said. Still on her cell phone, she said something was happening, and begged store employees to stay on the phone with her.

Bonham braved a peek out the plate glass window, and saw waves of heat and trembling earth. "I could see hot springs coming out of the ground, and the roar kept getting more and more intense," she said.

She thought about making a dash out the back door, but decided the heat was too intense. Then she crawled to peek out a front window, and saw a sheet of fire across County Route 21 in front of her house.

Slowly, it dawned on Bonham that there had been a gas explosion. A 20-year-resident, she said her house burned to the ground on the same spot five years ago. It now occurred to her that it might happen again.

"I thought the house was going to explode," Bonham said. Despite the heat, she decided she had no choice but to get out -- now.

"I felt like the earth was going to open up and swallow me up, or I'd be burned to smithereens," she said. She summoned up her courage and made a mad dash out of the back door and across her garden, where she sought refuge in the farthest corner, beneath the leaves of a bush now withered from the intense heat.

She was still on the phone. Bonham said employees at Jeff's called 911 and family members.

She threw up a pitifully small barricade of paving stones under the bush to try to protect herself from some of the heat. She threw her purse over the privacy fence, so firefighters would know where to find her.

She hoped it would be soon.

"If they don't get here in the next 20 minutes, I'm going to be burned alive," she remembers thinking.

It seemed like forever, but firefighters eventually broke through the fence and carried Bonham to safety.

"I'm still in shock," she said this morning, but concedes it could have been worse. Right next door, her daughter-in-law's home was demolished by the blast and the fire.

Directly across the road, all that remained of another home was a brick shell and the still-standing chimney. A car parked in front of the home was partially melted from the heat, with silvery tendrils of melted and resolidified metal snaking their way down the hillside.

In all, at least three homes were completely destroyed by the fire. Five more were damaged by the heat. But emergency officials said no one was killed or seriously injured.

"I was lucky," Bonham said. "I feel very blessed."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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