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Officials Investigate Gas Line Rupture That Caused Explosion, ‘Wall of Fire’

July 9, 1986

MOUNDS VIEW, Minn. (AP) _ Investigators today began investigating a gasoline pipeline rupture that sent a river of fire down a residential street, killing a woman and her daughter and forcing hundreds of residents to flee.

A pre-dawn blast Tueday sent flaming gasoline flowing down tree-lined streets as thick, black smoke billowed above the explosion site. Lawns were stripped of grass, mail boxes melted, power lines were knocked down, trees were wilted, roads buckled and cars ignited. One woman was seriously burned and two homes were severely damaged.

National Transportation Safety Board member John Lauber and two investigators visited the site this morning to begin their investigation.

Fatally burned in the fire were Beverly Spano, 35, and her 7-year-old daughter Jennifer.

Officials of Williams Pipeline Co., which owns the ruptured pipeline, were to meet with city officials to discuss plans for replacing it.

The Spanos apparently were burned when they ran out of their house after hearing the explosion, firefighters said.

Their front lawn was charred and a basketball backboard on their garage was blackened, but the house was undamaged.

Neighbors said they could hear Ms. Spano calling for help but could not see her because of the flames.

″We really couldn’t see through the flames because the whole street was a wall of fire,″ said Agnes Moss. ″We could hear her, but we couldn’t see.″

Another neighbor, Don Wesen, said he heard Ms. Spano scream: ″Call an ambulance, call an ambulance 3/8″

Gasoline seeped into the sewer system and caused smaller, secondary explosions that sent manhole covers flying into the air.

Residents were evacuated and those nearest the explosion site were not allowed to return until late Tuesday, after their homes had been inspected, city officials said.

Stephen Cropper, president of Williams Pipeline, said employees at Williams’ Tulsa headquarters terminal had noted a drop in pressure in the Mounds View segment of the pipeline early Tuesday.

Within four minutes, the pressure drop was verified by workers at the company’s Roseville terminal, he said. In less than 10 minutes, the flow of gasoline into the pipeline was halted at Minneapolis.

Cropper refused to say what might have caused the rupture in the pipeline, which was buried three to four feet deep.

″We deeply regret that this accident occurred,″ he said. ″Our heartfelt sympathy is extended to the Spano family.″

Williams officials emphasized at a news conference that company workers could not tell from the drop in pipeline pressure whether the line was leaking or had ruptured. Williams employees had no way of knowing where along its 157- mile length the buried pipeline had been breached, the officials said.

Mayor Jerry Linke said the gasoline apparently flowed from the source of the leak about two blocks down the street before something ignited it. The gasoline burned back up the street to the source of the leak. At that point, he said, there was an explosion that created a crater 3 feet deep and 5 feet wide.

Damage assessment might take weeks, said Don Pauley, Mounds View civil defense director.

Diane Balk, 47, was hospitalized at Hennepin County Medical Center in serious condition. Ms. Balk, who was delivering newspapers along the street, had second-degree burns over one-fourth of her body.

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