N.M. Pipeline Explosion Kills 10

Sunday, August 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — A natural gas pipeline explosion showered flames on a campsite and melted sleeping bags and tents in killing 10 people, including five children. Two other campers were in critical condition Sunday.

The underground pipeline shot flames toward the campsite of the victims much like a flame thrower when it exploded, the pipeline company said.

``The flames did shoot down to where the campsite was,'' said John Somerhalder, president of the pipeline group of El Paso Energy.

The victims were members of two southeastern New Mexico families who were camping along the Pecos River about 200 to 300 yards from where the explosion occurred Saturday, said state police Capt. John Balderston.

Balderston said a woman who survived recalled being awakened by shouts about a fire.

``She stands up and discovers she's on fire and jumps in the river,'' Balderston said, ``then returns to get her children — and can't, because it's so intense.''

Near the river, investigators found sleeping bags and tents melted by the heat, Balderston said. ``The only reason we could tell it was a tent was the geometric design of the poles,'' he said.

The pipeline was 5 to 6 feet underground at the rupture point, said Norma Dunn, spokeswoman for El Paso Natural Gas Co., which is owned by El Paso Energy. The rupture occurred about 500 feet east of the river, about 20 to 30 miles south of Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico.

``It is an absolute mystery right now as to why that blew,'' Balderston said. Dunn said investigators may never be able to say what sparked it.

The explosion left a large crater, which Balderston said was 85 feet long, 45 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The fire was visible from Carlsbad, 20 miles to the north.

``We saw a large ball of flames,'' Balderston said. ``The fire department was able to find six people in the river, walking west of the incident.''

Balderston said the area is not a developed camping area, but is a popular site for area residents because it provides easy access to the Pecos River.

The two remaining survivors were in critical condition Sunday at University Medical Center in Lubbock, about 160 miles from Carlsbad, said hospital spokeswoman Gwen Stafford.

The National Transportation Safety Board had a crew of investigators on the scene.

Gas from the pipeline goes to customers in Texas, New Mexico and California.