Utility: Pipe in explosion was damaged in 2003

The Associated Press

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ASHEVILLE — Preliminary findings by a utility have determined a natural gas line ruptured near Asheville earlier this month because it was weakened when some of the metal was scraped off the pipe more than a decade ago.

The Jan. 10 explosion sent flames more than 100 feet high, damaging several cars and buildings. No one was hurt.

PSNC Energy said a machine digging a hole for a smaller pipeline in 2003 damaged the pipe that exploded. While the pipe wasn't ruptured, the machine did scrape metal from it.

"It removed some of the wall thickness. We did not know that till we removed that section of the pipeline that night," George Ratchford, PSNC's vice president of gas operations, said.

The pipe was inspected for leaks twice a year and passed. Temperatures dipped below zero days before the explosion, but Ratchford said the pipe was 4 feet underground where soil temperature rarely dips below 50 degrees.

"Public safety is always our highest priority," Ratchford said. "We're doing everything we can to understand exactly what happened."

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is doing its own investigation, including trying to figure out what ignited the gas. In other explosions, the friction of gas escaping from a pipe is enough to create a spark, said Bill Gilmore, deputy director of the N.C. Utilities Commission Operations Division.

The explosion was so loud and so intense that some people thought a plane had crashed or there was an earthquake, said Jan Curtis, office manager of the payment office at DeBruhl's Used Car Superstore near where the pipe exploded.

"I'm sure I'll think about it every time I go through there," she said. "To me it's a miracle nobody got hurt."

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