Columbus, GA Gas Explosion, Apr 1980


Columbus, Ga. (AP) - Utility regulating officials will be in Columbus today to investigate a natural gas explosion that ripped through a downtown office building Friday, injuring 16 people, authorities said.
The explosion destroyed several offices in Rankin Square, a restored 19th century market housing shops, restaurants and office buildings. Fire officials said the blast was so intense it shattered 60 windows and blew out the fire that accompanied it.
A construction backhoe working in the street apparently pulled a gas line away from the building, allowing gas to flush through the offices of Robinson-Humphrey Co., Inc., a stock brokerage firm and the offices of a local law firm, said Jack Bell, president of Gas Light Co. of Columbus.
He said utility workers cut the main gas line outside the building to stop the flow minutes after the blast.
Harry Swift, manager of the Robinson-Humphrey office, said he smelled gas coming through an air conditioning vent and walked into the hallway before the explosion occurred.
"It sounded like a sonic boom," Swift said, adding the most severely injured were in the lobby of the office.
Two of the 16 persons treated for cuts and burns at the Columbus Medical Center were admitted in the intensive care unit, hospital spokesman Tom Titus said.
BARBARA TRAWICK, age unknown, was listed in critical condition late Friday and HAZEL CALVERT, 43, was listed in unsatisfactory condition, Titus said.
Former Columbus Councilman and civic leader JOHN D. HILGES, III; attorney JEROME ROTHSCHILD; stockbroker WILLIAM J. RUCKER; and heavy equipment operator HORACE ANDERSON were also admitted to the medical center but were reported in satisfactory condition, Titus said.
RALPH PUCKETT, a 53-year-old Atlanta resident who was in the area at the time of the explosion, was treated at the medical center and transferred to another local hospital in satisfactory condition.
It was not known how many persons were inside the building when the blast occurred, but witnesses said the injured were helped out of the building by the uninjured after the explosion. Several construction workers outside the building were also hurt, authorities said.
Fire officials said no one was inside the building when they arrived.
A Georgia Public Service Commission investigator and an official of the U.S. Department of Transportation's office of pipeline safety were expected in Columbus today to investigate the blast, Gas Light Vice President Howard Noblett said.
"We don't know whether the air conditioning or a pilot light somewhere in the building ignited the gas," said District Fire Chief Frank Fussell. "I wouldn't start to guess the amount of damage in the two offices, but it was tremendous."

Atlanta Journal Georgia 1980-04-12