Fort Worth, TX – By Alex Branch and Traci Shurley, Star-Telegram -An overloaded natural gas line sparked explosions and fires on Thursday, prompting evacuations, closing streets and restaurants in downtown Fort Worth, and snarling rush-hour traffic.
Gas fumes overwhelmed two people at a church northeast of downtown, and they were taken to Harris Methodist Fort Worth hospital. No other injuries were reported.
More than 60 firefighters took to the streets, and a 15-block area of Sundance Square was closed off after the odor of natural gas filled restaurants and shops just before 5 p.m.
Signs were posted on the locked doors at some restaurants. Lights were off in others.
The most extensive damage appeared to have been to the Morning Chapel Church at East Third and Crump streets. An explosion in the church kitchen blew a hole in the roof, melted plastic on appliances and singed the walls and cupboards.
The pastor, the Rev. Manuel Henderson, and the church secretary, Vernice Coleman, were treated and released at Harris.
Fire investigators said the problem might have originated near the church at the Trinity Bluffs construction site on the northeast edge of downtown.
A spokesman for Atmos Energy said the fires were caused by a surge in pressure in overloaded gas lines. Company crews were investigating whether the construction played a role in the gas surge.
Gas lines to the businesses usually hold seven to 10 ounces of pressure; at the time of the surge, they were holding about 16 ounces, said Rand LaVonn, public communications manager for Atmos.
“It went up much higher than it should have, and right now we’re trying to find out why,” LaVonn said.
About 11 p.m., LaVonn said company workers were shutting off gas at about 200 meters downtown, mostly at businesses. Crews were to work through the night, he said, first pressurizing the main gas line and checking for leaks. If no leaks are discovered, crews were then to begin pressurizing and checking individual lines.
The company hopes the work will be complete by late morning today.
The 15-block area of Sundance Square was closed to traffic after fire broke out about 4:40 p.m. in Riscky’s kitchen. Many businesses locked their doors while their employees stood outside watching firefighters file by. Gas was shut off in the City Center towers, which were evacuated after 5 p.m.
At least 10 restaurants were closed Thursday night, usually a busy night for businesses.
“I would say we evacuated only 10 percent of [the people who are usually downtown] because people were already heading home at that time,” said fire Capt. David Coble.
The fire at the church and in the kitchen of Riscky’s were reported about 4:40 p.m., Coble said.
The kitchen staff at Billy Miner’s also reported a gas surge.
The small fires were quickly extinguished, but the smell of gas was everywhere.
“We wanted to prevent any additional fires or any injury to civilians,” Coble said.
Firefighters went through buildings, turning off gas sources.
“By the time they could turn that corner,” said Robert Evans, pointing to a corner of the kitchen, “it blew up.”
Thursday evening, members of Morning Chapel examined damage to the historically black church, which observed its 137th anniversary three weeks ago.
It appeared that the explosion came from the gas stove.
Pressure in the gas line dissipated as it moved west from the Trinity Bluffs area toward downtown, Worley said.
Grant Gann, the manager of Riscky’s, said a kitchen worker came into his office and said he smelled gas. Gann stepped out just in time to see a kitchen fryer burst into flames.
“It was about a 4-foot flame,” he said. “It melted a trash can sitting next to it almost immediately.”
Gann said he activated the restaurant’s fire alarms and herded workers and customers outside.
Diners at Billy Miners Saloon were jolted by a loud explosion that they thought came from inside the restaurant.
“It was just BOOM!” manager Don Walker said. “It sounded like a big old diesel truck having a blowout.
Two people suffered minor injuries Thursday as a result of the gas-line problem that closed businesses and created rush-hour tie-ups in downtown Fort Worth. Other natural gas accidents over the years have caused far more damage.
Natural gas accidents
Embassy Suites Outdoor World, Grapevine, 1999: More than 30 people were injured in the hotel’s indoor pool area in an explosion touched off by a worker bleeding a gas line.
Colonial Cafeteria, Fort Worth, 1991: 22 people were hurt, three critically, when an explosion possibly linked to a gas leak ripped through the dining room.
Near the Tandy Center, downtown Fort Worth, 1986: One person was injured when a natural gas explosion destroyed a quarter of a city block and damaged at least 29 other establishments.
Frank Kent Cadillac, Fort Worth, 1986: 18 people were injured in a natural gas explosion at a construction site and Interstate 30 was closed for several days.