Missouri Highway 15 remained closed Monday as investigators from Panhandle Eastern Pipeline investigated the cause of a natural gas pipeline rupture early Sunday morning.
The explosion occurred approximately a mile north of Mexico and just south of Davis Fork bridge. The resulting fire sounded like a jet engine, witnesses said.
Traffic was diverted to Missouri Highway 22 and Routes E and T to secure the area and for pipeline crews to safely conduct operations, according to a statement from Amanda Gorgueiro, a public relations and communications representative with Energy Transfer Partners L.P., which oversees multiple pipelines, including Panhandle Eastern. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is working with Energy Transfer Partners in the investigation.
“This will allow us to facilitate the incident investigation and the repairs to the line. Investigations of this type are very detailed so there is no additional information at this time,” she wrote.
Multiple agencies responded to the blast, including the Audrain County Sheriff’s Department, Mexico Department of Public Safety, Little Dixie Fire Protection District, Audrain County Emergency Management, Missouri Department of Transportation and pipeline representatives, among others.
No fatalities or injuries were reported. A house under construction by Matt and Shawna Penn on the property where the pipeline ruptured was destroyed.
“We do know this with near certainty — had we been living in our new home, we would no longer be alive. That realization shook us to the core,” the Penns wrote in a statement. “But we are alive and well. We have our faith, our family and the love of friends — more than we ever imagined — who reached out to us with concern and relief.”
They also are grateful their children or anyone from Bill Schafer and his construction crew were not at the property at the time of blast.
The fire remained active for at least 40 minutes after the supply line was shut down. Once the fire adequately subsided, fire crews were able to respond, said Little Dixie Fire Chief Steve Gentry.
“It was so intense heat that we couldn’t get close enough to it,” he said about the fire. “Once it got to where we could manage it, we had firefighters go in and check what happened. We put out powerline poles, fence posts and trees and grass fires. We checked on the house.”
Along with Panhandle Eastern investigators, MoDOT is inspecting Highway 15 and the Davis Creek Bridge. There was reportedly large debris in the area of the blast.
Witnesses were awakened from dead sleep, including Audrain County Emergency Management Director Nick Tietsort. A pipeline explosion is not something people expect to hear or see, he said.
“The community response is what I was most impressed with,” Tietsort said. “Neighbors calling people making sure everyone was OK, so if we did have the need to evacuate … we had the ability to inform the community to do that.”
Tietsort did the similar round-robin calling to family members to ensure their safety as well, he said. Some Mexico community members gathered near the former Old National Refractories plant after leaving their homes, said Tori Webber, who lives on Dorcas Street.
Her family was roused at about 3:20 a.m. by the blast, she said. Her initial thoughts when she first woke were her house was on fire. The Webbers have a basement gas fireplace and use propane and she thought the flames were coming up outside of the house from the basement.
Once they realized that wasn’t the case, the second guess was a plane had gone down in a field.
“The sound (of the fire) was unreal,” Webber said. “It looked like it was just over the ridge. It was really loud. The house was shaking. I’ve had to straighten up pictures.”
Other witnesses said it felt like an earthquake, she said. Because the fire was so large and so bright, Webber said her husband thought it was 6:30 am, rather than about 3:30 a.m.
“There was a huge boom and pop. I still have a landline … and 911 wouldn’t answer, so I was kind of panicked,” Webber said.
The next step they took was to check on an elderly neighbor north of their home.
“So (my husband) headed toward the car and we grabbed the cellphone and put my coat on and we drove to her house,” she said.
The neighbor was already outside inspecting what was going on, Webber said. They then went back to their home and grabbed a few more essentials before departing again for the area near A.P. Green.
In the rush to leave, she said, they initially left home without shoes.
“I got on Facebook with my phone,” Webber said. “I just kept looking at information, so we knew it was a pipeline explosion. We just watched the flames. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and the street lights were turning off and on from how light it was.”
The fire subsided by about 4:15 a.m. Webber estimated. That is when they returned to their home. Highway 15 was closed at this point so they had to find a different way to get home. Even though the Webbers were still wired from the ordeal, they were able to get back to sleep for a little while, she said.
If another rupture were to happen on one of the pipelines running through the area Tietsort said area responders will be ready. Training likely will be updated with material from this incident, he said.
“At some point, we’ll have to go back through and talk to our emergency agencies and see how our plans worked and I’m sure we’ll prepare for other events in the future by using this (event) as an example,” Tietsort said.