Lingering flames stopped shooting from a broken gas transmissions pipeline in Estill County on Tuesday, leaving authorities with the task of determining what caused the Monday night explosion that wrecked the line. The blast frightened residents across Estill County, some fearing the nearby Blue Grass Army Depot, which stores large quantities of nerve gas, near Richmond had exploded.
No injuries were reported, and most of the 30 to 35 families evacuated after the blast had returned to their homes by late Tuesday, according to the Estill County Emergency Management Agency. But a few homes near the gas line sustained damage such as broken windows or seared siding, officials said.
The blast occurred about 7 p.m. Monday on an interstate gas transmission line operated by Columbia Gulf Transmission. The site is in the Hargett area off Ky. 89, about 7 miles northwest of Irvine.
Cindy Donaldson, a spokeswoman for Columbia Gulf, said Transmission Line 200, the one that exploded, is one of three company gas pipelines that run through Estill County. She said the two other lines were checked, and there is no indication they were damaged in the blast. Line 200 was built in 1966, she said.
Donaldson said company officials began a preliminary investigation into the explosion, but it might take some time to determine a cause. It's "too early to speculate" on a cause, she said Tuesday.
The interstate gas line is under the jurisdiction of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Department spokesman Damon Hill said Tuesday afternoon that federal authorities typically conduct an investigation after such explosions to pinpoint the cause and determine whether the operator should take any immediate steps to address safety. They might issue a corrective action order requiring safety steps, he said, or advise operators that they cannot reopen a pipeline until corrective measures are taken. More enforcement steps could be taken against an operator depending on the findings, he said.
Hill said, however, that it usually takes about 20 months to complete an investigation.
Estill County Judge-Executive Wallace Taylor said Tuesday that the county had been lucky.
"We have had no injuries reported whatsoever," Taylor said. "If this had to happen, it probably happened in one of the better places in our community as far as the distance away from a lot of residences. If it had been another half-mile either way, it probably would have impacted a lot more people and been a lot more devastating."
The explosion and resulting fire could be seen as far away as Lexington. But it was more frightening for those who live nearby.
"It was like Armageddon; it was like hell on earth," Estill County resident Jerry Arnold said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Arnold said he saw about 25 deer fleeing the area after the explosion.
"When it exploded, it was like a miniature atomic bomb going off," said Tom Stevens, a retired Kentucky State Police trooper who lives on a hill immediately across from the blast site. Stevens said he was in bed watching television Monday night, and the explosion "literally blew me out of bed."
Stevens said the explosion melted some siding on his house. It also blew open the doors at his daughter's nearby home and caused other damage there, he said.
"There was a massive fireball," he said. "The heat was so intense that we went out the back door and took off over the hill on foot."
Alarmed residents flooded emergency numbers with phone calls Monday night, Estill County officials said
"I talked to one of our county road employees this morning who lives in a mobile home in the area out there," Taylor said. "He said his mobile home shook, and when he looked out the window and saw the flames, he could feel the heat through his window."
Flames continued to roar up from the damaged line early Tuesday. But county officials said the gas had been shut off about 10:30 p.m. Monday, and the flames were from residual gas in the line. Crews were allowing it to burn off, they said.
Ronnie Riddle, a planner with the Estill emergency management agency, said the flames were reported out by Tuesday afternoon.
Donaldson, the Columbia Gulf spokeswoman, said the damaged line carried natural gas from Rayne, La., to Leach in Boyd County. From there the gas goes into another pipeline for distribution to Eastern and Mid-Atlantic states, she said.
When the damaged gas line was shut off Monday night, gas flow was rerouted into other company transmission lines, and gas deliveries were not interrupted, Donaldson said.
She said workers' main priority now would be to secure the area around the damaged pipeline.
Vegetation near the line was charred because nearby woods caught fire.
Homes within a half-mile radius were evacuated after the blast, said Melissa Jessie, public information officer for the Estill County Emergency Management Agency.
Jessie said Columbia Gulf representatives were going door to door in the area late Tuesday morning, checking houses for signs of damage.
"We were very, very lucky because the explosion was pretty much out in the middle of a field," Jessie said.
About 75 people were directly affected by the evacuation, Taylor said. Some who lived outside the immediate evacuation zone chose to leave their homes as a precaution.
Taylor, the judge-executive, said most of the evacuated families spent Monday night with friends or relatives; some might have used a temporary shelter that was established at Estill Springs Elementary School in Irvine. One family was put up at a motel, he said.
Taylor, who lives on the other side of Estill County, said he received a call about the blast Monday night and looked out his window toward Irvine.
"The sky was red, and I thought, 'Oh, my God,'" he said. "I went right to the 911 call center, and our call volume was tremendous.
"I think our proximity to the Blue Grass Army Depot maybe made people a little more nervous. I know we had people commenting Monday night and this morning that they thought the ordnance had blown up."
Taylor said county emergency crews, mostly made up of volunteers, "did a great job of keeping people safe."