CHARLESTON (AP) - To Sue Bonham, it was as if the world were coming to an end: A wall of flame had suddenly engulfed her West Virginia neighborhood. Amid a deafening roar, objects began crashing through her ceiling. Her home began melting around her and a nearby house, her step-daughter's, collapsed in a heap of ashes.
An intense, suffocating heat prevented the Sissonville woman from fleeing her home. She thought of escaping to her in-ground pool - learning later that the flames had driven its water to deadly, scalding temperatures.
"(I was) thinking the earth would open up at any moment and swallow me," Bonham told a Monday field hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. The chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, held the hearing in his state's capital city.
A fireball shoots across Interstate 77 from a gas line explosion in Sissonville, W.Va., Dec. 11.
The apocalypse Bonham witnessed was a natural gas pipeline explosion. A 1960s-era section of underground pipe had lost 70 percent of its thickness to outside corrosion. It ruptured around 12:41 p.m. on Dec. 11, triggering an inferno that ran the length of nearly four football fields along the pipeline and radiated out by around 840 feet.
The blast hurled a 20-foot section of pipe more than 40 feet. No one was killed or seriously injured. Bonham was treated for smoke inhalation. But the explosion and resulting fireball destroyed four homes and charred a stretch of Interstate 77 less than 113 feet away, shutting down all lanes until the following morning.
Rockefeller convened the hearing seeking lessons from the blast and other recent mishaps.
They include a Sept. 2010 pipeline blast in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people, injured dozens and destroyed dozens of homes, and a July 2010 pipeline rupture that spewed 843,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into Michigan waterways - the most expensive onshore spill in U.S. history.
With his fellow West Virginian, Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, Rockefeller heard from government officials, an executive with Sissonville pipeline operator Columbia Gas Transmission and a watchdog group's founder as well as Bonham.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said each of the three incidents involved pipeline from the 1960s or older. With more than 2.5 million miles of gas pipeline snaking across the country, including thousands of miles that stretch beneath or beside communities, about half the network was built before 1970, Hersman said.
"If a pipeline is adequately maintained and inspected properly, its age is not the critical factor. The condition of the pipe is the critical factor," Hersman said.
Hersman and other witnesses also said technology can help operators monitor their pipelines more closely.
The Sissonville explosion prompted Columbia Gas officials to shut down that pipeline and two others nearby, as they could not tell which one had ruptured. Operators of the Michigan pipeline did not realize they had a leak until 17 hours after it began, with three separate shifts of employees failing to detect the rupture. In both cases, the operators were alerted by outside phone calls, not their control rooms.
"I think control room protocols and procedures are critical, and I think folks need to have adequate training and have the proper authority to shut down a system to make sure there are no ruptures or leaks," said Susan Fleming of the U.S. Government Accountability Office.