Explosions scare quiet KS town

BY SUSAN KIM | Hutchinson, KS | January 19, 2001

Dangerous geysers of natural gas are plaguing a town never before struck by disaster. The geysers, shooting 30 feet into the air, erupted across the city's east end on Wednesday, sparking explosions that have killed one man and forced hundreds to evacuate.

The geysers are apparently the result of natural gas leaks in underground storage tanks, according to reports from the Adjutant General's Department. The Kansas Division of Emergency Management signed a state disaster declaration for the town Thursday.

Eight natural gas geysers were still active in the city on Friday and fires are ongoing. A blast downtown on Wednesday destroyed two businesses.

Fire fighters, police, gas crews and the National Guard are working together to rope off risky areas and try to locate the source of the leak. Meanwhile, more than 100 residents will likely remain evacuated for a third night Friday night. The American Red Cross has set up a shelter in a 4-H building at the Kansas state fairgrounds, where 80 people stayed Thursday night. The shelter has a capacity of 600.

The Salvation Army has been feeding the emergency teams, said Major Judith McCarty. "We could use hot dishes," she said.

The Rev. Kurt Kennedy, a Hutchinson native, said that people feel insecure in their homes. "I responded to an elderly church member who is a shut-in, and I visited her and just listened and tried to reassure her," he said.

"This is a town that's never seen disaster. We have an amazing water control system, and tornadoes don't come down through the valley," said Kennedy, who is a pastor at Riverside Baptist Church.

"But all of a sudden people with no problem don't feel secure in their homes."

Kennedy was one of many parents who were reunited with their children after schools had been evacuated. "When I picked up my 6-year-old son, he hugged me - not a normal thing for him," he said.

Kennedy said he knew John Hahn, the man who died. "He was a Mr. 'fix-it.' He could fix anything that was broken."

Ray Hemman, public information officer for Reno County emergency management, said he was concerned about children's fears. "This is scary because it's an unseen thing under the ground that suddenly happens. It's rough. There was no warning."

Hemman added that emergency officials can't give people a time frame for when they'll be able to return home. "We're dealing with a volatile chemical."

Some people have been allowed to return home with escorts to retrieve medicines. "There are people with special needs who have gone to the shelter at the 4-H center, some people who are blind, and one person who just had surgery."

Still, Hemman added, "we're much more hopeful today" because the number of shooting natural gas geysers was reduced from around 17 to eight. "I feel we're close to identifying the source of the leak."

The Rev. David Tappe, pastor at the Eastwood Church of Christ, was visiting the shelter to voluntarily offer pastoral care to evacuees. Tappe was also taking coffee to fire fighters.

The Rev. Willard Stafford, who is the police, sheriff, and fire chaplain for the county, said that he was glad the state offered extra emergency workers. "Another couple of days with police and fire fighters working 20 hour shifts would have gotten to them," he said.

Temperatures in Kansas are hovering at about 16 degrees with a wind chill of 5 degrees.

Thirty Kansas Army National Guard soldiers and 15 humvees have been mobilized. The Guard has been assisting with evacuations, manning barricades, and aiding law enforcement officers with roving security patrols.

Joy Moser, public information officer for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, said that emergency crews are trying to cut down the size of the evacuated area which stretches for more than a seven block area.

"It's a bizarre one. If we're able to pump off the gas, residents could go home, then the National Guard can go home, and the law enforcement could go home," she said.

Kansas Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer toured the site of the explosions and visited the Reno County emergency operations center.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is evaluating potential environmental impacts that may be associated with the explosions and fires. One focus of this evaluation is the possibility of groundwater contamination that may result from possible underground migration of natural gas.

KDHE said the department has not received any indications of dangerous levels of airborne pollutants but the department is recommending that people avoid inhaling natural gas vapors. KDHE has no confirmation that this particular supply of gas could be detected by smell.

Some officials speculated that the gas could be coming from a storage cavern in Yaggy, seven miles away. The facility has registered a 100-pound drop in pressure. The gas could conceivably move along city water lines, then rise up through 300-foot brine wells dug to mine salt. Those wells, dug decades ago, are unmapped.

Hutchinson is located about 60 miles northwest of Wichita.

"This isn't over yet," said Kennedy.

The incident is one of several natural gas-related fires or explosions that have drawn attention to the hazards of the popular energy source. While natural gas has been the cause of many explosions in homes, especially with leaky gas stoves, pipeline explosions have recently gained the most national attention.

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