Gas Surge, Fire Close 15 Blocks Downtown Fort Worth, Texas

Leonard Roberts, trustee at Morning Chapel Church, examines damage in a hallway of the church after a gas explosion in the church's kitchen Thursday afternoon. Two people were treated at a hospital after the blast.

Fire Capt. Greg Yates cordons off the area around Billy Miner's Saloon in Sundance Square on Thursday, shortly after a surge in a gas line caused an explosion and some small fires.

Outside Riscky's Bar-B-Q at Second and Main streets, Battalion Chief Kenny Freeman, at right, gets an update over his radio as Battalion Chief Bill Pearson listens in.

Firefighters prepare to check for gas leaks at Riscky's, where a small fire had been reported in the kitchen in the late afternoon.

Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, left, consults with fire investigator Sabino Vasquez as fire crews deal with the effects of the gas line surge.

Gas surge paralyzes downtown

DAMAGE

An explosion at the Morning Chapel Church blew a hole in the kitchen roof, melted plastic and blackened walls.

EVACUATIONS

Fifteen square blocks of downtown were cordoned off, and two office towers and several other buildings were cleared out.

TODAY

An Atmos Energy spokesman said that 200 downtown gas meters would be shut off until at least midmorning.

An overloaded natural gas line sparked explosions and fires on Thursday, prompting evacuations, closing streets and restaurants in downtown Fort Worth, and snarling rush-hour traffic.

Gas fumes overwhelmed two people at a church northeast of downtown, and they were taken to Harris Methodist Fort Worth hospital. No other injuries were reported.

More than 60 firefighters took to the streets, and a 15-block area of Sundance Square was closed off after the odor of natural gas filled restaurants and shops just before 5 p.m.

Signs were posted on the locked doors at some restaurants. Lights were off in others.

"Except for the tornado, this has never happened before," said Tracy Gilmour, director of marketing for Sundance Square.

The most extensive damage appeared to have been to the Morning Chapel Church at East Third and Crump streets. An explosion in the church kitchen blew a hole in the roof, melted plastic on appliances and singed the walls and cupboards.

The pastor, the Rev. Manuel Henderson, and the church secretary, Vernice Coleman, were treated and released at Harris.

Fire investigators said the problem might have originated near the church at the Trinity Bluffs construction site on the northeast edge of downtown.

A spokesman for Atmos Energy said the fires were caused by a surge in pressure in overloaded gas lines. Company crews were investigating whether the construction played a role in the gas surge.

Gas lines to the businesses usually hold seven to 10 ounces of pressure; at the time of the surge, they were holding about 16 ounces, said Rand LaVonn, public communications manager for Atmos.

"It went up much higher than it should have, and right now we're trying to find out why," LaVonn said.

About 11 p.m., LaVonn said company workers were shutting off gas at about 200 meters downtown, mostly at businesses. Crews were to work through the night, he said, first pressurizing the main gas line and checking for leaks. If no leaks are discovered, crews were then to begin pressurizing and checking individual lines.

The company hopes the work will be complete by late morning today.

Downtown, Billy Miner's Saloon and Riscky's Bar-B-Q were among the restaurants that remained closed Thursday night as investigators tested gas lines on the block.

The 15-block area of Sundance Square was closed to traffic after fire broke out about 4:40 p.m. in Riscky's kitchen. Many businesses locked their doors while their employees stood outside watching firefighters file by. Gas was shut off in the City Center towers, which were evacuated after 5 p.m.

Bass Performance Hall, site of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, was also closed, but officials reopened the doors about 6:30 p.m. and the performances went on as scheduled.

At least 10 restaurants were closed Thursday night, usually a busy night for businesses.

Streets had reopened by 10 p.m., said Lt. Kent Worley, a Fire Department spokesman.

It was unclear late Thursday how many businesses were affected by the problem. Residences were not evacuated.

"I would say we evacuated only 10 percent of the people who are usually downtown because people were already heading home at that time," said fire Capt. David Coble.

The fire at the church and in the kitchen of Riscky's were reported about 4:40 p.m., Coble said.

The kitchen staff at Billy Miner's also reported a gas surge.

The small fires were quickly extinguished, but the smell of gas was everywhere.

"We wanted to prevent any additional fires or any injury to civilians," Coble said.

Firefighters went through buildings, turning off gas sources.

Thursday evening, members of Morning Chapel examined damage to the historically black church, which observed its 137th anniversary three weeks ago.

Trustee Robert Evans said Henderson and Coleman had smelled gas and gone to investigate.

"By the time they could turn that corner," said Robert Evans, pointing to a corner of the kitchen, "it blew up."

It appeared that the explosion came from the gas stove.

The church is nicknamed Old Rock on the Corner, Evans said. It is the first Christian Methodist Episcopal church in Fort Worth.

"There's a lot of history in this church," Evans said. "I don't know what's next."

Worley estimated damage to the church at $100,000.

Evans said members weren't prepared to estimate what it would cost to repair the structure. He said the church may approach the city for help. "We can work with them to come together and see how we can keep this building going," Evans said.

Pressure in the gas line dissipated as it moved west from the Trinity Bluffs area toward downtown, Worley said.

Grant Gann, the manager of Riscky's, said a kitchen worker came into his office and said he smelled gas. Gann stepped out just in time to see a kitchen fryer burst into flames.

"It was about a 4-foot flame," he said. "It melted a trash can sitting next to it almost immediately."

Gann said he activated the restaurant's fire alarms and herded workers and customers outside.

"We're really lucky no one got hurt," he said.

Diners at Billy Miners Saloon were jolted by a loud explosion that they thought came from inside the restaurant.

"It was just BOOM!" manager Don Walker said. "It sounded like a big old diesel truck having a blowout.

"Boy, it shook me up. It shook us all up."

Visitors in town for the Cliburn piano competition -- many of whom are staying downtown hotels -- watched wide-eyed as firetrucks flooded the streets.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Patrick Slatters, a South African staying at Etta's Place with his wife, Joyce. "All these trucks and flashing lights. We couldn't figure out what was going on."

Gilmour, the Sundance Square spokeswoman, said that the plans of hundreds of people were probably affected.

"Unfortunately, we lost an evening of business, but we'll be back up and running in the morning," Gilmour said.

Two people suffered minor injuries Thursday as a result of the gas-line problem that closed businesses and created rush-hour tie-ups in downtown Fort Worth. Other natural gas accidents over the years have caused far more damage.

Embassy Suites Outdoor World, Grapevine, 1999: More than 30 people were injured in the hotel's indoor pool area in an explosion touched off by a worker bleeding a gas line.

Colonial Cafeteria, Fort Worth, 1991: 22 people were hurt, three critically, when an explosion possibly linked to a gas leak ripped through the dining room.

Near the Tandy Center, downtown Fort Worth, 1986: One person was injured when a natural gas explosion destroyed a quarter of a city block and damaged at least 29 other establishments.

Frank Kent Cadillac, Fort Worth, 1986: 18 people were injured in a natural gas explosion at a construction site and Interstate 30 was closed for several days.

Compiled by news researcher Marcia Melton

Staff Writers Aman Batheja and Sarah Bahari Contributed to This Report.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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