JUNCTION CITY, Ky. — “It looked like a war zone.”
Doug Baker is a man not easily fazed. As chief of the Somerset-Pulaski County Special Response Team, Baker has been called out to some of the most stressful scenes a responder will see on the job — chemical spills, polluted waters, even for the threat of biological weapons.
However, what he found in Lincoln County after the events of Thursday’s wee hours made an impression even on someone like him.
“I’ve been doing this for 33 years, I’ve never seen so much destruction in my life,” said Baker. “... I can’t imagine what those people went through.”
An explosion near Junction City in central Kentucky made national news Thursday when a regional gas pipeline ruptured.
The resulting ball of flame that went into the sky could be seen for miles and miles; locals quickly took to social media, posting pictures and asking what was going on. Some reports said even those as far away as Lexington could see the blaze. WKYT meteorologist Chris Bailey tweeted that the explosion even showed up on the station’s radar.
According to state police, a 58-year-old Stanford resident was killed. A Lincoln County Deputy and several nearby resident sustained non-life-threating injuries and were taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Local responders were there from the get-go. Baker said that local fire departments from Science Hill and Nancy were paged out “when no one knew what this was.” Baker too was alerted around 1:30 a.m., just about seven minutes after the incident occurred and quickly made contact with Lincoln County officials. At first, he said, “everyone thought it was a railroad train ... That’s what made sense.”
Once it became clear that it was a ruptured gas line, the Special Response Team (SRT) sent its aerial drone in to get a safe view of the scene.
“Even Somerset-Pulaski County EMS was notified to help,” said Baker.
In the darkness of the early morning, SRT used its flair systems to search the area for other victims that might be down and to locate hotspots that were still burning.
“We couldn’t get very close (that) night because the flames and heart were still there,” said Baker.
Come the morning, SRT was requested to give its drone photos to Kentucky State Police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to show the picture of overall destruction.
“We took pictures of each house with drones doing scene assessment,” he said, later adding, “If it’s got a federal acronym to it, they’re on the scene.”
He noted KSP ultimately handled the death investigation primarily, not the probe into the pipeline, but that a “team was coming in from Washington” to address that issue.
The cause of the rupture was still undetermined when the Commonwealth Journal spoke to Baker, who said the investigation into that matter is continuing.
“There wasn’t any construction going on there,” he said. “I’m sure they will determine (the cause).”
Baker said the 30-inch main gas line stretched all the way from the Mexican border to New York, and involved the Texas Eastern Transmission Pipeline, which is owned and operated by Enbridge.
“It had been there 50 years or more,” he said. “Whether it’s been replaced in that time or not, I don’t know.”
What ignited the gas to cause the explosion may be unclear, but the damage was evident for all to see. Baker noted that a 30-foot section of pipe, which weights about 150 pounds per foot, was thrown clear over 450 feet.
Furthermore, the heat was so intense that it warped the nearby railroad tracks, which had to be completely replaced, said Baker.
“Norfolk Southern got the rails back on around 11 a.m. (Thursday),” said Baker. “The explosion was probably within 75 feet of Norfolk Southern’s main line that comes through.”
Baker said SRT cleared the scene about 1:25 p.m. Thursday afternoon.
According to the Associated Press, Kentucky State Police spokesman Robert Purdy said at least five homes were completely destroyed and structures within 500 yards had damage. He said a handful of people who were missing after the blast have now been accounted for.
Purdy said the fire burned so hot that it left the landscape barren, burning trees and grass and leaving only red dirt, rocks and gravel, according to the AP report, which stated nearby residents said they were awakened by the initial blast.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky responded to the incident in comments on the Senate floor released Thursday.
“My office and I are closely monitoring a significant explosion of a natural gas transmission pipeline near Danville, in Lincoln County, Kentucky early this morning,” said McConnell. “As of this morning, one fatality and five more injuries have been reported, and others may be unaccounted for. We hope and pray that these figures don’t increase. Several structures have been damaged or destroyed.
“The Lincoln County Emergency Manager reported, ‘The part of the area that has been compromised, there is just nothing left.’ The fiery explosion was so large that it was picked up by weather satellites. And witnesses report that the smoke could be seen from my hometown of Louisville, almost 70 miles away,” he added. “Obviously the investigation is just beginning. My staff and I will continue to stay on top of this and be a resource for everyone affected.
“This morning, our prayers are with all the families whom this disaster has touched, and our gratitude is with all the first responders who rushed toward towering flames to protect their neighbors and communities.”