E&E News visits site of 2012 Sissonville, W.Va., pipeline blast

On Dec. 11, 2012, a pipeline owned by Columbia Gas Transmission ruptured and ignited, melting an interstate and incinerating three houses. E&E News interviewed first responders and a survivor of that explosion.

Editing and production by Chris Farmer.

Mike Soraghan: This is Mike Soraghan for E&E News.

It started with a rumble, then a blast. Around lunchtime on December 11, 2012, a corroded spot on a Columbia Gas Transmission pipeline ruptured in the community of Sissonville, West Virginia, north of Charleston.

It took an hour to shut down the pipeline and cut off the roaring flame. A section of Interstate 77 melted and three houses were incinerated. Fortunately, none of the residents were killed because they weren't home. Volunteer firefighter Drew Foutty described the scene.

Drew Foutty: There was debris all over the place. It was all the way down to where the entrance ramp is for the interstate.

Soraghan: Oh wow.

Foutty: So you have close to a half a mile of debris field. Just going this way. I don't know how far exactly it spanned going east-west. But it was fairly substantial that way too, because the culvert there, the fire was blowing through the culvert. So it's cooking the interstate from the top and the bottom.

Soraghan: Sue Bonham was home -- on the phone with a woman named Trudy Weaver to get her dishwasher repaired. She scrambled to hide, not knowing four local firefighters were looking for her.

Sue Bonham: God, please, just don't let me know I'm going to burn alive. I'm ready to go. It's all right. I made my peace. I said my goodbyes on the phone to my family through Trudy, and I was ready to just go ahead and call it quits. It just overcome me, and that's when the guys came in.

Soraghan: Regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration did not seek a financial penalty from Columbia. That's not uncommon. An E&E News analysis of federal data shows that since the beginning of 2010, interstate pipelines have exploded or caught fire 137 times. In about 90 percent of those cases, regulators sought no fine.