THROWBACK THURSDAY: Remembering the pipeline blast of 1999
By JAMES WEAR
It was August 10, 1999. President Bill Clinton found himself welcoming Lance Armstrong to the White House in recognition of Armstrong’s first victory in the Tour de France cycling race. Overseas, Vladamir Putin was being installed as acting prime minister in Russia. Around the water cooler in offices across America, many were discussing a new television series, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” that had made its premiere a couple of days earlier.
In Liberty Hill, Live Oak Plaza, a new office and retail location on Hwy. 29, was preparing to open. Negotiations were ongoing between the Look Out Group and the Greater Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce concerning a 22-acre parcel located off CR 200 that the Greater Chamber was eyeballing as a possible location for a future library and youth center.
I was working out in Durham Park, paintbrush in hand, when I heard a loud explosion. I stopped and began surveying the horizon. At the time, I was a member of the Liberty Hill Volunteer Fire Department and seconds after hearing the explosion, county dispatchers dropped the tone out, noting in the dispatch “multiple” calls had been received regarding an explosion, possibly in the CR 214 area.
Driving to the station, I thought perhaps a meth lab had blown up, even though at the time I didn’t fully understand what a meth lab was. I remembered that some weeks earlier another fireman and myself had been on standby for hours as investigators from the sheriff’s department had gone through a residence out past CR 214, searching for drugs. Arriving at the station, I jumped aboard the department’s pumper truck with another volunteer and we headed out CR 214 and I guess it was about that time we saw the huge column of flames and smoke.
We would soon learn a pipeline crossing Sundance Ranch had exploded, and numerous grass fires were erupting. Being in the engine, which was not suitable for chasing burning grass across fields, we were instructed to remain on 214 and stop incoming traffic. We could see the fire from where we staged. The flames were estimated to be 150 feet in the air.
Other volunteers headed out CR 200 and found themselves fighting the grass fires, with volunteers from other departments soon arriving and joining the battle. It lasted all day and mop up efforts continued until midnight. More than 100 acres burned, but no homes were destroyed.
It was not until later that day that details about what triggered the explosion began to come out. A 41-year-old employee of a subcontractor working for Pedernales Electric Cooperative, while drilling holes for utility poles in Sundance Ranch, had struck a 14-inch gas line. His skeletal remains would be retrieved and transported to the Travis County Medical Examiner’s office for positive identification. He was identified as Rudy Lopez of Carrizo Springs. Five other crew members escaped without injury.
Valves were shut off at both the north and south ends of the pipeline to stop the flow of fuel, with safety experts saying that allowing the remaining fuel to simply burn off was the safest way to avoid any additional explosions. The fuel was identified as a mixture of propane and ethane gas.
Many persons were evacuated from their homes in Sundance that day, and the school district, at the time under the direction of Superintendent Dean Andrews, opened up the high school gym where those persons and their families were given shelter, food and water. Throughout Liberty Hill, businesses were boxing up water and food to feed hungry firefighters.
In the weeks that followed, the Texas Railroad Commission issued a report on the blast and noted it was caused by the failure of the contractor to call the Texas One Call Notification System before beginning work. PEC claimed it had marked the spots where the crew was to dig the holes and said the contractor probably assumed PEC had made the call to Texas One Call.
Some time later, representatives from Seminole made a generous donation to the fire department in recognition for its efforts that day.