Pipeline explodes in Concordia Parish

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 5, 2006

VIDALIA &8212; A natural gas pipeline burst and ignited Wednesday afternoon on Whitehall Plantation, decimating a nearby home but causing no major injuries.

Two parallel gas lines run across the Mississippi River, they are connected by a collar at the terminal point on Louisiana 131 between a home owned by David Rountree and the office of his father, Percy Rountree.

A crew from Wilco Pipeline Co., of Lafayette, had been working since Monday to replace part of the pipeline. The line they were working on was dry, but the collar appears to have shifted during the excavation process, Concordia Parish Director of Homeland Security Morris White said.

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&8220;It looks like the ground may have given way and pulled the collar down,&8221; he said.

The moving of the collar could have cause the active pipe &8212; a 20-inch diameter main &8212; to bend and subsequently break.

Master Trooper Robert Murphy of the Louisiana State Police Hazardous Materials Unit said the leaking natural gas &8212; which turns to vapor when exposed to oxygen &8212; rose in a cloud and was probably ignited by the overhead electric lines nearby.

Percy Rountree was tending to his bookkeeping at his office when what he called a &8220;to-do&8221; broke out.

&8220;It was just a tremendous explosion,&8221; he said. &8220;Then there was fire everywhere in the vicinity.&8221;

Concordia Fire District No. 2 Chief Nolen Cothren, who was in charge of fighting the fire, estimated the flames rose 35 to 40 feet in the air.

&8220;It&8217;s the biggest fire I&8217;ve ever seen,&8221; he said.

The wind was blowing the flames away from his house, so he felt free to worry about his son&8217;s house, which was no more than 50 feet from the source of the blaze.

&8220;It just completely engulfed his house, the house was totally destroyed; the only thing left standing were two brick chimneys,&8221; he said.

The resident occupants of the house, Gene and Vicky Ridgaway, weren&8217;t home at the time.

&8220;If I would have been home 30 minutes earlier&8230;&8221; Gene Ridgaway said.

Vicky Ridgaway was visiting her daughter in Texas, her husband said, or else she probably would have been inside.

Two cats, a bird and their pet goldfish weren&8217;t so lucky. Gene Ridgaway said he was &8220;devastated … about as devastated as you can be considering 40 to 50 years of your things just burned up.&8221;

Along with the house, Ridgaway lost five antique cars &8212; including a 1929 Dodge Coupe he said was the last of its kind.

In all, 14 cars, three giant track hoes, two compressors and several trailers and tractors were destroyed by the fire.

One member of the Wilco crew, who declined to give his name, said they were counting their blessings to have escaped with only minor injuries.

&8220;We&8217;re real lucky. Any time something like this happens, you thank the Lord we&8217;re all alive.&8221;

Two Wilco workers were taken to Natchez Regional Medical Center, one for burns &8212; which he incurred stopping to help a fallen co-worker &8212; and another for a possible concussion.

The burn victim was treated and released, while the other was reported in stable condition and will be held overnight for observation.

The pipeline is owned by Mid-Louisiana Gas, a subsidiary of Embridge Co. It hired Wilco to replace the pipeline.

Representatives of Embridge and Wilco declined to comment, saying they were still working to figure out what went wrong.

Murphy said the incident was still under investigation but that negligence didn&8217;t seem to be at the root of the mishap.

&8220;The whole deal was an accident,&8221; he said. &8220;They&8217;re excavators and took all sufficient precautions.

But working with gas is just an inherently dangerous business.&8221;

Louisiana 131 was reopened later Wednesday evening.

White said he expected natural gas service could be disrupted for as long as three to five days.

The service area affected includes most customers along Louisiana 15, most of Vidalia and possibly parts of Adams County south of Natchez.

More specific information about which households were affected was not available by press time.