Swollen Texas river bursts into flames after gas pipelines break

The Associated Press

HOUSTON Two pipelines beneath a roiling river burst Thursday, sending 100-foot flames of burning gasoline snaking more than a mile down the San Jacinto River. At least 69 people were injured.

"It looked like hell opened up on the water and the whole river was gasoline," said Mike Norman, who was on the bank trying to retrieve his sailboat when the explosion occurred.

Some 11,500 people were forced from their homes by heavy rain that began Sunday. Skies were clearing, the murky water had begun to recede in most areas, and some people were returning to their damaged homes when the pipeline broke east of Houston, sending smoke and flame hundreds of feet into the air. The flooding has claimed at least 15 lives.

The burning mixture set fire to homes and boats along the banks. Schools and businesses in the path of the smoke were evacuated. Most of the injured were treated for minor burns and smoke inhalation.

"There were three loud booms and then an immediate black cloud," witness Doug Trowbridge said. "It just began to spread like wildfire."

The first explosion, around 10:30 a.m. occurred near "The Spaghetti Bowl," the mouth of the nation's interstate pipeline network. A second pipeline ruptured around 2 p.m.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena surveyed scene by helicopter and said the explosion was likely caused by the rain-swollen river.

"We have seen this in other parts of the country where you have massive flooding and pipes are hit. Tanks get loose and you have ruptures and you have explosions," Pena said, adding there would be an investigation.

The two pipelines, about eight feet apart, are buried about three feet beneath the floor of the river, said Sam Whitehead, spokesman for Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline, which owns both lines. They run beneath the river for about 2 miles.

The first line, 40 inches in diameter, carries gasoline from nearby Pasadena to New Jersey. The second line, 36 inches in diameter, carries No. 2 diesel fuel, Whitehead said.

Whitehead said the company doesn't know what caused the ruptures or how many gallons of fuel spilled.

"This was a very serious flooding situation. That's the only thing that we know that is unusual," Whitehead said.

The ruptures caused gasoline future prices to rise in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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