Training kept pipeline blast from being bigger disaster

McDuffie County Fire Chief Bruce Tanner had never worked a pipeline fire before last week, but he was prepared when he got the call.

Each August, firefighters gather to learn about the dangers and strategies for working pipeline disasters.

"Because of that we were able to minimize the situation a little bit," said Dixie Pipeline spokesman Rick Rainey. "That was a tremendous help."

Firefighters already knew where emergency valves were located when they arrived at a Thomson propane pipeline explosion on July 5.

After quickly getting permission from Dixie representatives, Tanner was able to shut down the valves.

Firefighters cased the perimeter and determined an evacuation of the area wasn't necessary.

Tanner said as bad as the situation was, he knows it could have been worse.

"Before I arrived on the scene I thought there was a possibility that the Belle Meade subdivision was affected," he said.

Had the gas not ignited when it did, it could have traveled farther and more property could have been damaged and more people injured.

"It was a tragedy as it is, but it could have been a lot worse," Tanner said.

Jason McCorkle, 23, died in the explosion after his father, McDuffie County Commissioner Paul McCorkle, punctured a 2-inch hole in the pipe with a bulldozer.

The commissioner suffered freeze-type burns and has been released from the hospital, authorities said.

Along with training emergency responders, Rainey said pipeline companies make every effort to prevent these types of incidents.

Dixie Pipeline officials regularly monitor their lines and internally test their pipes. Markers are also placed along the pipeline.

Representatives distribute pamphlets to owners and contractors in a pipeline area and require anyone digging in the pipeline vicinity contact them 48 hours in advance. A representative is then sent out to watch over the pipeline during digging, Rainey said.

Through a preliminary investigation, Rainey said Dixie officials have not found where anyone was notified of McCorkle's digging.

"According to federal statistics, third-party hits are still the single largest cause of pipeline incidents in the country," he said.

The Department of Transportation maintains that pipelines are the safest means of transporting petroleum products and natural gas.

Including the Thomson accident, two deaths and twelve injuries have resulted from pipeline incidents in Georgia since 2000, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

"The pipeline runs all the way from North Carolina to Texas," Tanner said, "and yet you don't hear about this stuff."

Tanner said he has heard some concerns from Thomson residents about pipeline safety, but he assures them he and Dixie Pipeline are doing everything to avoid this happening again.

"Anytime anything like this happens, people get anxious," he said. "We assure them that there are things in place already to mitigate this, but there's no way you can mitigate it 100 percent. "Mistakes are made and this kind of thing happens."

Tanner took the opportunity to point out the importance of calling if you're ever working near the pipeline.

Construction has begun to repair the damaged pipe, Rainey said, but an investigation of the incident is still ongoing.

Audio: 911 call

 

The audio above is of the McCorkle family's 911 call regarding damage to the Dixie Pipeline liquid propane gas line. The call is Paul McCorkle and his family reporting the damage to the pipeline. As with any 911 call audio, the content involved can be disturbing. Listener discretion is advised.