A gas line explosion and towering fireball hurt at least one construction worker and consumed construction equipment about 2 p.m. Wednesday along Illinois 162 in Maryville.
The injured person was taken to Anderson Hospital in Maryville with burns over 70 percent of his body, then flown to a St. Louis hospital. The equipment operator with Keller Construction in Edwardsville was stabilized at the Maryville hospital before being transferred to Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, which has a burn unit.
“They were able to get him here very quickly,” Anderson Hospital spokeswoman Natalie Head said. “Our prayers are with his family.”
News photographs and eyewitness accounts painted a chaotic scene, with police officers rushing toward the fireball.
Maryville resident Jim Harrison said he saw Maryville Police Officer Justin Krausz carry an injured person from the fire.
“He put his car in park, radioed it in and ran directly toward him, and picked him up and carried him a distance from the flames, then other rescue crews started arriving,” Harrison said.
Maryville Police Chief Rob Carpenter said a construction crew excavating at the site of the future Villas at Nottingham hit a 10-inch steel gas line and triggered an explosion at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. Carpenter said the intense flames made it difficult for emergency workers to work, but they were able to get to a worker who was seriously injured and rush him to the hospital. “The flames were shooting very high in the air when we arrived,” he said.
Early reports that there was a fatality on the scene were in error, Carpenter said. “Everybody else is accounted for,” he said.
Ameren crews were able to shut off the gas line, but the explosion set several cars on fire, some of which also exploded, Carpenter said. “We heard a lot of pops and bangs,” he said.
Carpenter said as far as he knows, none of the houses was damaged. Residents were evacuated for at least a quarter mile east and west from the scene. Illinois 162 was closed from Illinois 159 to 157, along with several side roads and sections of Illinois 157. “We’re not going to let anyone back in until we know it’s 100 percent safe,” Carpenter said.
John Barud, an Ameren operations director, said a loss of gas pressure was noticed immediately at a control center in Decatur.
“We saw a loss of pressure, and we knew something had happened to a 10-inch, steel, high-pressure main that runs down here,” Barud said.
“There’s a third party construction company, not Ameren, was doing some work at a subdivision down the road and they actually dug into this high pressure main. And it’s several hundred pounds of pressure. So once they dug into it and perforated it there was an escape of gas. And it would have come out like a jet engine, because of the pressure, and there was an ignition at some point,” Barud said.
Carpenter said he was not aware of what precautionary measures were or were not taken by the construction company regarding presence of gas lines.
Glen Carbon resident Sandy Gerstenecker-Weinacht said she smelled gas in the area more than an hour prior to the explosion Wednesday afternoon.
“I was just driving through on 159 at 12:45 and could smell gas by the new Circle K gas station and Walgreens,” she said.
The explosion led to evacuation of some homes in the area. Witness Jimmy Simmons, a freelance photographer, said the explosion rocked his house and then he saw the flames shooting up.
Simmons said a woman driving on Illinois 162 at Buck Road Cemetery had to abandon her car and run from the fire. Construction equipment was being consumed by flames and he shielded himself from the heat with a tombstone to get photos.
“I guess I was about a football field away from the fire,” Simmons said. “Even at that distance the heat was so intense. I worried about the power lines being burned and the power lines falling down. We didn’t stay very long.”
According to Collinsville Unit 10 School District, school buses carrying students to that area were intercepted. Students living in the affected area were being taken back to school, where families could pick them up.
Black smoke was visible from the south border of Maryville.