Centralia, MO Natural Gas Line Explosions, Jan 1982


Centralia, Mo. (AP) -- A state of emergency was in effect today after 28 homes and businesses burst into flames within seconds when the pressure in a natural gas line was kicked up accidentally, causing water heaters and furnaces to spit fire like
Five people were injured Thursday in the fires, which started after a gas line regulator was hit by a backhoe at the power company. Burton Knowles, mayor of the town of 3,500 people, ordered a state of emergency and dusk-to-dawn curfew to prevent looting.
"My son just got in the front door and he said, 'Get out of here, Mama, it's ready to blow,'" said Neta Cox, who was cooking lunch.
"Then the furnace blew up and within 10 minutes, it was the hottest flame I ever saw."
Nine houses were destroyed and at least 19 other homes and buildings -- including a motel and a funeral home -- were damaged in the fires.
Knowles ordered a state of emergency Thursday night and a dusk-to-dawn curfew to prevent looting, but Police Chief Jim Hollis said no trouble was reported. Hollis said he was not sure whether the curfew would be in effect again tonight. "Right now we're going to play it by ear," he said.
Hollis said gas service had been restored to 95 percent of the homes by this morning.
Bill Hollander, a retired engineer, said "gas jets were blowing all over town ... those pilot lights were blowing like blowtorches."
Terry Mansfield, the chief of the volunteer fire department in the central Missouri town, was on his mail route when he saw the smoke billowing over the community.
"I couldn't stand it ... I had to get back to town. I thought my town was burning down," he said.
"One house blew up, and after that it was just bang, bang, bang, in a chain reaction," Mansfield added. "I don't know how it was, how some houses kept from blowing up."
The accident occurred when ALVIN JACOBS, a longtime city employee, was operating a backhoe whith a three-man crew near a Missouri Power and Light Co. building that houses our of four pressure regulators for the town's natural gas system, Knowles said.
The backhoe struck a gas line regulator, allowing high-pressure natural gas to shoot through low-pressure lines into homes across town. Although the high pressure may have caused some houses to explode, most caught fire when the flames shot out of water heaters and furnaces, authorities said.
"I don't think anybody knew what was happening for a while," said Barney Wainscott, who had one son lose his home and another lose his insurance office.
"It seemed like everywhere you went there was a fire on either side of you," he said.
"We got that first call, and within minutes, maybe seconds, there were so many calls the phones couldn't handle it."
One of the 125 firefighters called from surrounding towns to fight the blazes said it
"was like somebody decided to make a movie about a whole town burning down."
Hollis said one woman suffered a heart attack and two other people, including a firefighter, suffered smoke inhalation. He said he could not give details of the other two injured people except that neither was seriously hurt.
"We'll spend (Friday) finding out how many homes have actually received damage. We can then evaluate the overall operation," said Elton Heeton, the city's disaster preparedness director.
Knowles declined state help offered by Gov. Christopher Bond, saying the situation was under control.
Those who lost their homes stayed with others in the community. The Red Cross had prepared overnight shelters at two churches, but said Thursday night that all residents had found housing in private homes.

Casa Grande Dispatch Arizona 1982-01-29