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Evacuation order lifted after Salem Twp. gas line explosion

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SALEM TOWNSHIP, Pa. - The quarter-mile evacuation order following the massive gas line explosion Salem Township has been lifted, according to officials. 

Emergency crews were called Friday morning to a gas line explosion in Westmoreland County, flames from which could be seen for miles.

Normal business operations can resume in the area surrounding the blast site, according to Chief Bob Rosatti of the Forbes Road Volunteer Fire Department.

A section of Route 819, from Boggs Hollow Road, to Congruity Road, will remain closed until PennDOT crews can assess damage to the roadway and make repairs. 

The explosion in the 36-inch pipeline was reported shortly before 8:30 a.m. along Route 22, near Route 819, in Salem Township.

A man who was inside a home that was about 500 feet away from the blast was burned and taken to UPMC Mercy Hospital. The home was destroyed.

“He told us he heard a loud noise and compared it to a tornado. All he seen was fire and started running up the road,” Rosatti said.

The fire was blowing across Route 819 and the man suffered severe burns as he escaped the home and ran down the street.

Friends of the man, James Baker, told Channel 11 News that he is a 26-year-old newlywed who recently underwent ankle surgery.

Baker began the first of many surgeries he will need Monday at UPMC Mercy’s burn unit.

On the day of the explosion, Baker was life-flighted and put into a medically induced coma. 

  • A GoFundMe page has been established to help James Baker and his wife. (CLICK HERE)

“The heat was so intense, it was burning him as he was running," Rosatti said.

Jenna Daniels said her father rushed toward the fire and found the victim on the street.

“My dad said he backed up to get him away from it and waited until the ambulance came, and I heard he got life-flighted,” she said.

Daniels’ father told Channel 11 News that he saw the explosion and took off in his truck to make sure everyone was OK. He said as he made his way around the curve, he saw the victim running and said it was clear he was running to live.

James Baker and his wife
© 2017 Cox Media Group.

Jeremiah Baker, James Baker’s brother, told Channel 11 News that his family wanted to thank Daniels’ father.

“We don't know his name or anything, but we wanted to thank him,” Jeremiah Baker said.

Jeremiah Baker also said his family members are still looking for three pets: a Rottweiler, a Chihuahua and a cat.

Two other nearby homes were damaged, including Richard and Linda Johnston’s. The siding and railings at their home melted.

 

“Just thankful that we are all OK. And the house has minor damage, everything can be fixed or repaired,” Linda Johnston said.

Firefighters reported seeing nothing but flames when they arrived at the scene.

"As far across my windshield as I can see was a massive fireball," Rosatti said.

According to officials, when the gas line exploded, a piece of pipe the size of an SUV blew off about 500 feet.

About a dozen homes were evacuated. Anyone who did not have a place to go was told to report to the Slickville Fire Department.

As of Friday evening, residents of two homes, including the one that was destroyed, remained displaced.

The Department of Environmental Protection sent workers to the scene, according to spokesperson John Poister. 

Firefighters from several departments were called in to fight the fire, which appeared to be under control shortly after 9:30 a.m. The gas was shut off.

"It looks like a bomb went off," Rosatti said.

Channel 11 News requested the inspection records for the impacted gas line from the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
 
The department, which is investigating the incident, released the following statement Friday afternoon:
 

“On April 29, 2016 at 9:20 am, Texas Eastern Transmission, LP (Spectra Energy Partners, LP) reported to the National Response Center a pipeline failure that resulted in a fire and explosion on a 36 inch natural gas transmission pipeline located five miles east of Delmont, Pa., in Westmoreland County. PHMSA has deployed an inspector to investigate the cause of the failure.”

Poister said the DEP investigation will take several weeks. The state police and Spectra Energy are also investigating.

Mark McDonald with NatGas Consulting in Massachusetts, who has investigated similar incidents, told Channel 11 News that investigators will be looking at a handful of things.
 
“Erosion, incorrect instillation: there's several things that need to be looked at. Did someone damage the line previously? Did someone kick it?” he said.
 
Records Channel 11 News pulled Friday showed that the gas line had an active permit for the county dating back to 2013. 
 
McDonald said he was not surprised the records from PHMSA weren’t released.
 
“All the information is buried,” he said.
 
While the community rallies around those impacted by the explosion, McDonald said investigators will be looking closely at any evidence left behind.
 
“Burn, explosion patterns, laboratory testing, you can actually put together the pieces fairly easily,” he said.
 

Power has been restored to all home and the power company has replaced several burned utility poles. 

 
Experts told Channel 11 News that it could be months or even years before the exact cause of the explosion is determined.