Texas Pipeline Explosion Challenges Rural Responders

Explosions of natural gas pipelines are unexpected, violent, and frequently result in significant loss of lives and property. They can occur anytime, anyplace on land and at sea. An Internet sampling found the following: On March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak caused an explosion that destroyed the New London School in New London, TX, killing 300 students and teachers. The East Ohio Gas Co. gas explosion in Cleveland, OH, occurred on the afternoon of Oct. 20, 1944. The resulting gas leak, explosion and associated fires killed 130 people and destroyed one square mile on the city's east side.

Although related safety and technological advances may have incrementally decreased the number of fatalities per incident, escalating usage and ever-increasing demands continue to stress the industry as a whole. On March 4, 1965, a section of pipeline north of Natchitoches, LA, owned by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. exploded due to stress corrosion cracking, killing 17 people. This accident led to President Lyndon B. Johnson's formation of a national pipeline safety agency.

On Dec. 5, 1968, five repairmen responding to a rupture of a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) pipeline near Yutan, NE, were killed when they drove into a vapor cloud and ignited it. A natural gas liquids (NGL) pipeline ruptured in Austin, TX, on Feb. 22, 1973, killing six people.

On July 6, 1988, 167 people died when Occidental Petroleum's Alpha offshore production platform on the Piper Field in the North Sea exploded after a gas leak. The April 22, 1992, explosion in Guadalajara, Mexico, killed 206 people, injured nearly 500 and left 15,000 homeless after numerous explosions in the sewer system over four hours in the downtown district of Analco.

The Humberto Vidal Explosion occurred on Nov. 21, 1996, in a shoe store of the same name in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and killed 33 and injured 69 when the building collapsed. Twelve members of the same family were killed on Aug. 19, 2000, near Carlsbad, NM, when severe internal corrosion caused a natural gas pipeline to explode.

Nighttime Blast

By comparison, the 1,500 residents of Bushland, TX, were fortunate when a pipeline explosion caused by a ruptured El Paso Natural Gas (a subsidiary of Houston-based El Paso Corp.) line pump station in the Prairie West subdivision caused a massive, 10-story geyser of fire and resulting blaze that rocked their homes and lit up the night sky at 1 A.M. on Nov. 5, 2009. The blast created a 14-foot crater, threw potentially lethal chunks of dirt up to 100 feet away and started at least seven brushfires. The shock waves rattled windows in Amarillo, about 15 miles to the west.

The El Paso Corp. owns North America's largest interstate natural gas pipeline system — approximately 42,000 miles — and transports more than a quarter of the natural gas consumed in the United States each day. The company, which ranks in the top 10 domestic independent producers, finds, develops and produces natural gas, oil and natural gas liquids and has a balanced program throughout the United States, Brazil and Egypt.

Potter County Fire/Rescue consists of three paid positions: fire chief/fire marshal and two assistant chiefs. Approximately 70 volunteers respond out of six stations. Potter County Fire/Rescue also has an impressive array of apparatus: seven engines, one reserve engine, five rescue/initial attack trucks, six large wildland engine/tenders, one special operations unit with two trailers, a rehab unit and three command units.

Potter County encompasses 910 square miles. Potter County Fire/Rescue provides primary response for 853 square miles. Part of the county lies within the city limits of Amarillo, with which it has automatic and mutual aid agreements. The department is part of the Potter/Randall Office of Emergency Management and has automatic and mutual aid contracts with Randall County and other neighboring entities. Potter County Fire/Rescue's area of responsibility is semi-rural to urban with vast amounts of ranch operations. Many communities are spread out through the area. The department offers full-service response from medical first response to technical rescue. The members deal primarily with medical emergencies, motor vehicle crashes and extrications, wildland and structural fires, industrial incidents and fires as well as high-angle, confined-space, building collapse and Level A hazardous materials responses.

Before the explosion, there were no other reported incidents with the pipeline in the area. However, in 2007, the corporation agreed to a $15.5 million fine as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and pipeline safety regulators involving the explosion near Carlsbad, NM, that killed 12 members of the same family who were camped near the pipeline. That particular blast occurred in a 50-year-old, 30-inch pipeline that left a 20-foot-deep crater that was 86 by 46 feet in size. The corporation also committed to spending $86 million to modify the pipeline system. At the time of the Bushland explosion, which involved a 24-inch pipeline about one mile north of Bushland, the modifications were 93% complete, although it was unclear whether the Bushland pipeline was modified. A civil trial involving emotional distress claims by first responders to the Carlsbad blast is underway in Roswell, NM.

"The call was received at our communications center at 1:10 A.M. on Thursday, November 5," Potter County Fire/Rescue Chief Richard Lake said. "Our department responded with a general-alarm response bringing all available units and personnel. The fire could be seen for miles so the communications center was flooded with 911 calls bringing an automatic aid response from the Amarillo Fire Department consisting of one ladder, four engines and three command units."

Mutual Aid Called In

Mutual response from other agencies was swift and substantial.

"Randall County responded with an engine, grass rig and tender," Lake said. "The cities of Canyon, Wildorado, Vega and Boys Ranch responded with engines and tenders. The EOC (emergency operations center) was activated with a mobile command unit sent to the scene and support staff at Amarillo City Hall. Amarillo Medical Services responded with three ambulances and Baptist St. Anthony's responded with two ambulances."

Multiple other agencies assisted, including the Red Cross, utility companies, Amarillo Police Department, Potter County Sheriff's Department, Randall County Sheriff's Department, Amarillo Emergency Services, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Department of Transportation and Bushland Independent School District officials.

"The reason for such an initial response was the potential for loss of life and injuries," Lake said. "We also made sure we had adequate resources available in case of other incidents occurring in the county while all of our resources were committed."

The Prairie West subdivision encompasses roughly one square mile and has approximately 300 homes. The area is still in the process of development and many lots are vacant. It is served by three streets intersecting with a major thoroughfare called FM 2381. It is roughly shaped like a horseshoe with winding roads. Wildland apparatus were also called in, as were an adequate number of tenders for a sustained water supply. The subdivision has no hydrants and a water shuttle was needed for any fire attack. One ladder truck was initially on scene and was released after it was determined it would not be needed.

"First-arriving crews found a great deal of chaos," Lake said. "A 24-inch natural gas pipeline was flaming about 500 to 700 feet in the air. Multiple grass fires were threatening homes and property, people who live in the area were in shock and many onlookers were flocking to the area causing a great deal of traffic congestion. In addition to the grass fires, a home and shop were on fire, another five homes close by were threatened and utility poles anywhere close to the scene were burning, leaving live power lines across roadways and driveways. Upon my arrival, I found many law enforcement and fire units beginning to organize an evacuation of the neighborhood. This became an immediate priority and the high school was used as a staging area for responders because it was closer to the incident. The middle (Bushland Middle School) was used to shelter (approximately 60) residents and a triage area was set up for anyone who may possibly be injured."

Three people were taken to hospitals. One victim had serious burns over 30% of her body and was being treated in a Lubbock hospital's burn unit.

"One home was destroyed and two others damaged," the chief said. "The flames were mostly contained by 5:30 A.M. Once this was accomplished, grass fires were contained and a home across the street caught fire and was extinguished. The initial home and shop were already fully involved and could not be safely approached until the gas line fire was controlled. A unified command was set up with command staff from Potter County and the City of Amarillo. A mobile operations center was set up in the high school parking lot and a staging area was also established."

Challenges Faced

"The immediate challenges were to make sure any injured people were located and treated," Lake said. "Evacuation had to be coordinated and all residents had to be accounted for. This was compounded by traffic congestion and the need to have wildland trucks close to the pipeline to contain the grass fires. Traffic had to be closed off for many miles from the neighborhood to limit the flow of onlookers."

Another challenge was to control and account for all the responding crews and all those who were on scene already. Automatic aid companies were helping with evacuation and it took some time to account for everyone.

"In a pipeline of this magnitude there is no suppression to accomplish on the pipeline itself," Lake said. "We worked closely with the gas company making sure valves on either end were shut and the residual gas allowed to burn off. Our department as well as our mutual aid partners keep foam available and it would have been available if needed for this fire. The suppressants used on this fire consisted of water and Class A foams as the fire suppression efforts were directed to exposures rather than the pipeline."

Lake continued, "This incident was handled as having the potential for large loss of life and multiple injuries. Closing of the closest valves and containing the exposure fires were the incident priorities in conjunction with evacuation and isolation. There was approximately 12 miles of gas line between the valves. Pressure in the line was above 750 psi at the time of the incident. Gas pipelines have many hazards associated with them. Identifying the product is a key concern as our area regularly transports natural gas, odorized and non-odorized, propane, crude oil, gasoline and many other hydrocarbon products. A close working relationship with the companies in the area helped us quickly determine the product and determine actions. Most of the pipelines and systems in our area have monitoring devices installed as part of the system. We were informed early on that the monitor station in Colorado Springs, CO, had recorded a pressure drop on the line at about the same time the incident was reported. Our department has responded to ruptures in the past. None of these involved fire and none were in a highly populated area."

Lesson Learned

Lake said that the lessons learned or reinforced, not necessarily in order are, "Drills, planning sessions and past responses paid off as command staff has worked together before and a truly unified command controlled the scene. Many command personnel contributed with a common purpose and goal."

  • Scene control — "A strong command presence was needed to control the scene as well as responders," Lake said. "This was very important to control freelancing and account for all responders on scene. Several different departments worked together on this scene in different capacities with positive results."
  • Training with private industry — "Have a good working relationship with pipeline companies," Lake said. "Our area has regular safety meetings, training sessions and current information flow. This is essential to be able to work together to control this type of incident. We were able to talk directly to the people responsible for not only the pipeline but also for gas service for the sub-division. This turned out to be a benefit so service could be restored and families allowed to return to their homes after only hours instead of a longer time frame. This also afforded us monitoring equipment and personnel trained to deal with natural gas emergencies which helped return residents home quicker."
  • Accountability — "Accountability was challenging in this incident," the chief said. "Our department has decided to review our accountability procedure and institute a new process for identifying our members. This has also been addressed by our regional preparedness commission as a priority for all responders in our area."
  • Caring for civilians — "At the earliest possible time, we assigned a member of our support services unit to the middle school where interaction with displaced residents could take place," Lake said. "This helped us tremendously with being able to give regular updates, check for anyone with injuries or special needs, and work with news media personnel so they too were informed."

Subsequent to the incident, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Administration finished gathering samples from the explosion site. The samples were taken to Washington, DC, for an investigation.

MICHAEL GARLOCK is a Florida- and New York-based writer specializing in fire service responses to major incidents.