APPOMATTOX — The first indication of trouble came in the form of a small grass fire Sunday morning.
Appomattox County Deputy John Mattox was patrolling rural Log Cabin Road just north of the town of Appomattox when he noticed thin smoke. Then came an explosion that blew dirt and debris into the air.
He stopped to talk to a resident traveling in the other direction. Then a second explosion erupted into a fireball that demolished two houses and blistered the siding on homes 400 yards away.
“It was what can only be described as a massive fireball, a quarter- to a half-mile tall and at least that wide,” said Appomattox County Deputy John Mattox, who was patrolling rural Log Cabin Road when the explosion occurred. “I couldn’t see to the other side of it because that fireball was so massive.
“The concussion of it almost knocked me off my feet a quarter mile away, and the heat… I thought it was coming for me and I couldn’t get back fast enough.”
The Transco pipeline, owned and operated by the Williams gas company, ruptured around 7:45 a.m. Sunday. The rupture was near a gas pumping station, and residents say the pipeline in that area had been under construction recently.
The interstate pipeline was shut down immediately and firefighters could only contain the fire and let it burn while they evacuated the area.
Five people were injured in the blast, but none of the injuries were life-threatening.
Mattox immediately began pounding on doors, trying to wake residents and get them out of the path of the flames. Many heard the initial explosion and were struggling to wake up and figure out what happened. He was convinced with the size of the flames that more houses had been involved and that there had to be some fatalities. He said he is grateful that he was wrong.
“I was telling folks to just run, to get in the car and run, don’t take anything, just go,” Mattox said.
The aftermath of the explosion left a 15-foot crater in the ground just off Virginia 26. A portion of the natural gas pipeline was mangled and blown across the road into what used to be a grassy field. The field is now barren dirt.
The lettering on the street sign at Kelly Creek Lane melted and appeared to be almost dripping off the sign after the fire.
The pipeline runs from the Gulf of Mexico to New York — more than 10,500 miles of 36-inch pipe. The cause of the rupture and subsequent explosion is still under investigation both by Williams and state and federal officials.
“Certainly, this is a serious incident and Williams employees are doing everything they can to ensure public safety,” said Randy Barnard, Transco’s senior executive for operations. “We are very concerned about the report of injuries and the property damage. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been affected.”
Stuart Roach, district manager for Williams, said employees were on the scene once the fire burned out to examine the damage and look for clues.
“We still have a lot of facts to gather,” Roach said. “There will be an investigation of the scene to determine what caused the failure.”
Twelve homes were evacuated, said Sgt. David Cooper of the Virginia State Police. A shelter set up by the American Red Cross and Appomattox County at Appomattox County High School served more than 40 people. Williams sent those who could not return to their homes to local hotels.
Bobby Wingfield, director of public safety for Appomattox County, said the pipeline has built-in fail-safes that automatically shut off the gas when a rupture is detected and alert the gas company. Those fail-safes prevented the explosion from gaining magnitude.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before as far as I know,” Wingfield said. “We never want something like this to happen, but there are plans in place.”
Flames shot in the air in excess of 300 feet, said Sheriff Wilson Staples. The flames were visible in the town of Appomattox more than a mile away.
More than 100 firefighters responded from Appomattox and neighboring counties including Buckingham County Fire and Rescue, Gladstone Fire and Rescue, Concord Fire and Rescue, Appomattox Fire and Rescue, Red House Fire, Pamplin Fire and Rescue and Amherst County Emergency Services, along with the regional hazardous materials team, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Virginia State Police.
The heat and flames were intense enough to spawn a separate grass fire that was quickly contained, said Timothy Garrett, of the Appomattox Fire Department.
Neighboring houses were evacuated as a precaution while firefighters worked to contain the blaze, Garrett said.
The Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Appomattox Fire Department tested the air all afternoon for any other possible leaks, said Vicky Phelps, spokeswoman for the county. No further leaks were found.
Virginia 26 will remain closed until the Virginia Department of Transportation can inspect the road and determine if it is still stable, Wingfield said. That will only happen after the investigation is complete.
wow.. i missed this story.. guess we were all busy when it happened.. lol
A 36" line is likely at a pressure of 1000 psi. Mainline valves are required every 10 miles. They likely had to be shut manually since gas pipelines are not always required to use automated systems. So after they close the valves, that is still a 36" bottle, 10 miles long and pressured to 1000 psi, and with little to no restriction as it exits the pipe. That blowout would last at least 30 minutes if not 1 hour AFTER THE VALVES ARE SHUT.
I used to work for Transco years ago, and installed the compressor station automation system at station 170 (Appomattox). The max operating pressure was 800 psi then, and probably now (doubt the pressure was raised - just too expensive). I believe that there was a 30" and two 36" pipelines downstream from the compressor station. There was a rupture detection algorithm in the station control program as well a separate rate-of-drop system on individual pipelines. As the stations on Transco's systems were unmanned, automated valve settings w/ rupture detection were installed. If I remember correctly, the valve settings were 15 miles apart. A rupture like this would have shut down the compressor station, and its discharge valves to isolate this section. One thing is for sure - a pipeline rupture is a scary, loud event.
When valves fail and mechanical integrity is compromised, pipe is pushed to it's limits. I am sorry for all those who had to suffer from this. Hate to hear of things like this. God bless all those affected.