N.M. Pipeline Explosion Kills 10

Monday, August 21st 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Jim and Sheila Bailey arrived at Victory Baptist Church on Sunday unprepared for the shock that lay in store.

Until then, the Baileys hadn't heard about the natural gas pipeline explosion that killed 10 people Saturday, including some of the couple's friends.

``It's a very devastating blow,'' Jim Bailey said. ``It just kind of hits you like a rock.''

The explosion on the Pecos River just before dawn swept flames down the river's banks and through tents where two families had been camping. Five children were among those killed.

The only survivors, a man and his daughter-in-law, were in critical condition Monday at a Lubbock, Texas, hospital.

Officials described the ruptured pipeline as a massive flame-thrower that showered burning fuel on the victims. The explosion generated heat so intense that sand melted into glass and concrete turned to powder, a federal investigator said.

National Transportation Safety Board Investigator John Hammerschmidt said it likely will take several months to determine what caused the rupture in the 30-inch-diameter pipe.

``We'll be looking for any areas of human error that might have occurred or even organizational error,'' he said.

NTSB investigators found at least three sections of the pipe that had been blown from the ground. The explosion, at a point about 6 feet underground, carved out a crater 86 feet long, 46 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

``There is no indication it was third-party damage or foul play,'' said John Somerhalder, president of the pipeline group for El Paso Energy Co. ``This was a very major tragedy.''

The victims were members of two extended families from Carlsbad, Artesia and Loving, all in southeastern New Mexico, who had been camping along the river in an unmarked but popular camping site for fishermen, police said.

Some had been fishing along the river's banks, their lanterns set up to light their way, officials said. Others had been asleep. Officials said they would have had no chance to escape the flash of fire that caught them between the river and the ruptured gas line.

One survivor recalled being awakened by shouts to find herself and everything around her on fire, said state police Capt. John Balderston. She jumped in the river, then found she couldn't get back to the children because of the flames. Twin girls, 6 months old, were among the victims.

The fire burned 40 minutes to an hour and was visible from Carlsbad, 20 miles to the north.

Near the river's edge, investigators found sleeping bags and melted geometric shapes that once were tents. Three charred pickup trucks looked as though they had taken a direct hit from a bomb.

``This is a tragedy that words don't describe,'' Gov. Gary Johnson said as he toured the blast site Sunday. ``This is grief unimaginable.''

There are ``concerns with pipeline safety, obviously,'' Johnson said, and there may be a regulatory role for the state, but it's too soon to say what action might be taken. He said investigators first must determine what went wrong.

Hammerschmidt said Sunday that the NTSB already has a proposal on pipeline safety before Congress. ``We think improvements can be made in pipeline safety in general,'' he said.

The pipeline was installed in 1950. It was last checked Aug. 2, company spokeswoman Norma Dunn said.


On The Net:

National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov

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