Source: Sherman Publications

FD saves apartment bldg. after gas line ruptures

by CJ Carnacchio

July 13, 2011

Quick action by the Oxford Fire Department saved a village apartment building from a potentially devastating blaze.

At approximately 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 6, firefighters were called to the Village Manor Apartments, located off Pontiac St., when a construction vehicle ruptured a 1-inch natural gas line, causing both the pipe and heavy-duty piece of equipment to catch fire.

“The tires were burning. The hoses were burning. The engine was burning,” said Oxford Fire Chief Pete Scholz.

The fire was burning approximately 12 feet away from a three-story apartment building, which was evacuated as a precaution.

“Probably another five minutes and it would have been involved,” Scholz said. “When we first arrived, there was heavy black smoke over the top of the building. The flames were shooting up in the air probably about 30 feet.”

“The flames were already as high as the building, and actually, were on the verge of burning the eves, and almost to the point of impinging into the windows.”

Oxford brought its 95-foot aerial tower to the scene and deployed it just in case the blaze spread to the apartment building.

Fortunately, firefighters were able to quickly extinguish the vehicle fire with a combination of foam and water.

However, natural gas from the ruptured line continued to gush into the air and burn, forcing firefighters to continue pouring water on the construction vehicle to cool it and prevent it from reigniting. At some point, the flame went out, but the gas kept pouring out.

“Basically, everyone was just kind of standing there at that point, taking turns holding the hose and spraying water on it until Consumers (Energy) got there to dig up the line and pinch it off,” Scholz said.

A crew from Consumers Energy arrived on the scene at 3:05 p.m. and had the gas shut off within 20 minutes, according to Scholz.

The blaze began when a construction vehicle designed to grind up the asphalt and mix it with the soil like a rototiller struck the gas line, which was only 6-8 inches underground.

Village Manor Apartments is in the process of having the parking lots around its buildings resurfaced.

“When it first happened and (the operator) saw the fire, he thought the machine itself was on fire,” Scholz said. “He immediately jumped off the machine, grabbed a fire extinguisher and used it. One of the other drivers ran over with a fire extinguisher and used it. That’s when they discovered the gas hissing out of the ground.”

The asphalt around the ruptured gas line had been clearly marked by MISS DIG System, Inc., a statewide excavation safety and utility damage prevention company.

However, even when utilities are staked or flagged by MISS DIG, “there is no guarantee” that it’s the exact spot, Scholz noted.

“Usually, (the marking is) accurate within probably three feet,” he explained. “If you’re doing any digging in that area, you’re supposed to hand dig anything within say 10 feet of it on either side.”

The company resurfacing the Village Manor’s parking lots did not do any hand digging by the gas line it ruptured, Scholz said.

“They were under the assumption that the gas line was deeper and went through there (with the machine),” he explained.

When asked why a natural gas line was buried only 6-8 inches underground, Scholz indicated it’s not uncommon, especially if the pipe was there prior to the land’s development.

“The gas was probably installed before the buildings were built, before the total site work was done, so the grade changed as they did the final land balancing around the buildings before they built the parking lots,” the chief said. “(The gas line) might have been put in the ground 3 feet deep, but by the time they got done grading it, it ended up being 6-8 inches down.”

Scholz noted that when Consumers Energy workers dug down to the 2-inch main that was feeding gas to the ruptured 1-inch line, they discovered it too was only 6-8 inches below ground.

“(The construction workers) very well would have hit it again,” he said.

Assisting the Oxford Fire Department were two trucks and eight firefighters from the Oakland County Hazmat Team.

They used special meters to monitor the air both outside and inside the apartment building to make sure the amount of leaking natural gas didn’t reach explosive levels, Scholz said.