SISSONVILLE — Four homes went up in flames, ultimately collapsing, on Tuesday after a natural gas line exploded in an inferno that raged for at least an hour, melting guardrails and pavement on a swath of Interstate 77.
Five other homes had extensive external damage, and several people were treated for smoke inhalation, but authorities said there were no fatalities and all residents had been accounted for.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who toured the damage then briefed the media. “They were just lucky enough not to be home.
Most were at work. One man had just left to go hunting, he said.
“After looking at the damage, I’m grateful for the quick action of our local and state emergency responders who immediately called for a shelter in place.”
The explosion occurred between Sissonville and Pocatalico just before 1 p.m. in a 20-inch transmission line owned by NiSource Inc., parent of Columbia Gas. The gas flow was shut off, but State Police 1st Sgt. James Lee said there was still pressure on the transmission line. The shelter was opened at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Sissonville.
State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous said a slight risk of a secondary explosion remained, so people who had initially been told to stay inside nearby homes were later urged to evacuate.
Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission, said flames had been shooting 50 to 75 feet into the air before the fire was extinguished.
“It sounded like a Boeing 757. Just a roar,” he said. “It was huge. You just couldn’t hear anything. It was like a space flight.”
Carper said the flames spanned about a quarter of a mile and ran through a culvert under the interstate.
“It actually cooked the interstate,” he said. “It looks like a tar pit.”
Tomblin said a roughly 800-foot section both directions was baked by the heat.
“It turned the asphalt to cinder,” he said, after walking across it. “Your feet were hot. It was like walking on a volcano.”
Guardrails melted, utility poles burned, an ordinarily reflective green interstate sign was burned down to white metal and the blast blew a huge hole in the road, throwing dirt, rocks and debris across the interstate.
“Even the hillside was on fire,” Tomblin said. “There are some homes in close proximity that are still smoking.”
Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said contractors are already working on repairs, and the state hopes to have the highway reopened by Wednesday night. Crews were expected to work through the night to remove the asphalt and grind the roadway down to the original concrete before repaving.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get it back,” Mattox said.
Tom Miller, training officer at the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department, marveled at the destruction.
“Four lanes are gone,” he said, adding that it was remarkable that no motorists were injured. “We were very lucky — no rush-hour traffic.”
Federal and state investigators are now trying to determine the cause.
“It’s one of those rare events that happen,” Tomblin said, “and at this time we do not have those answers.”
NiSource spokesman Mike Banas said the company was still gathering facts.
“Our first priority is the safety of our employees and the community,” he said, adding that no impacts on customers are anticipated.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee and has made pipeline safety a priority, vowed to get answers.
“I’m in close contact with state and federal officials, as well as the company involved. It’s important that the National Transportation Safety Board is launching a team imminently to conduct a thorough investigation into how and why this happened, and that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will soon have someone on the scene,” Rockefeller said. “I will continue monitoring today’s developments, with hope for everyone’s continued safety, as we await a determination of the cause of this accident.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (also D-W.Va.) also commented on the explosion, saying that he was thankful to learn there were no fatalities reported.
“Although it is truly devastating that so many buildings, structures and roads have been severely damaged, material objects can be rebuilt or replaced; lives, however, cannot.”
“To all of the families who have been impacted today, know that I am talking to the appropriate local, state and federal authorities,” Manchin said. “I am anxiously waiting to hear exactly how this happened and to make sure this will not happen again any place else in the state.”
The West Virginia Democrat said the National Transportation Safety Board is launching a team “imminently” to investigate, he said, as is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.