Ruptured gas line possibly unmarked

Workers with the City of Grand Junction vent natural gas out of a sewage line at Walnut Avenue and Seventh Street in front of Tope Elementary School Friday morning. The school was evacuated because of the lingering presence of combustible gas.

A contractor who called 911 Tuesday after breaking a high-pressure gas line at the intersection of Seventh Street and Orchard Avenue told a dispatcher he found two marked lines but reported there was an “extra” line—the one that was breached.

Nearly an hour later, the home at 1752 N. Seventh St. exploded. The home to the south, 1742 N. Seventh St., also caught fire and quickly burned to the ground.

“I believe it’s an extra pipe. Everything that’s marked is found and there’s an extra one,” the contractor from Apeiron Utility Construction told 911 dispatchers at 11:54 a.m. It was the first of dozens of calls and emergency communications made in conjunction with the gas leak and explosion, the recordings of which were obtained by The Daily Sentinel.

Kristin Winn, spokeswoman for the city’s Public Works and Planning departments, told the Sentinel Thursday that of the two marked pipes, one was active and the other was an abandoned gas line that was previously used to service Colorado Mesa University. The third pipe, the one that was hit, was active.

Contractors with Apeiron were digging into the ground Tuesday working to upgrade utilities for a traffic signal in the intersection when they hit that pipe, according to city officials.

Winn said the city and contractors who perform work for the city rely on utility companies—in this case, representatives from Xcel Energy—to mark the location of utility lines before digging.

“My understanding of it is ... the third line did not show and the locating company was not aware of it,” she said. “They were digging to avoid those two (lines). The third one was quite a bit lower.”

Xcel spokesman Fred Eggleston declined to comment on Xcel’s process of marking gas lines. He said the gas leak and the ensuing explosion are being investigated by state and federal regulators.

The city uses a Geographic Information System to map its water and sewer lines, but the city’s information doesn’t show mapping for gas lines, Winn said.

She said the city’s water and sewer line mapping is fairly accurate, but “occasionally we come across a line that has been abandoned.”

According to the 911 recordings, the first fire engine arrived at the scene at 12:04 p.m. Multiple citizens then call to report a strong gas odor in the area. At 12:38 p.m., a firefighter at the scene notes there is a “significant” problem with the gas leak and calls for shutting down streets and instructing people to remain in their homes, businesses and schools in a two-block radius. At 12:48 p.m., a firefighter reports the explosion of the house.

Officials from the city and Xcel are still monitoring gas levels in the area, but the remaining residents who were still evacuated from their homes were allowed to return Friday morning. Xcel workers had performed 140 checks on homes in the area of Seventh Street, Elm Avenue and Orchard Avenue. At its peak, the evacuation area swelled to 75 homes, according to city officials.

Meanwhile, all lanes of Seventh Street and Orchard Avenue reopened Friday afternoon.

Students at Tope Elementary had only two full days of school this week, Monday and Thursday. After someone reported smelling natural gas near the school Friday, students were evacuated to West Middle School. Parents, many of whom probably just dropped their kids off, were notified to pick them up again by 10 a.m.

Officials reported while there is still a smell of natural gas in the area, the levels of gas in the air are safe.

“It was a precautionary measure,” School District 51 spokeswoman Christy McGee said of evacuating the school Friday. “We want to keep kids safe. We will always err on the side of caution.”

Staff writer Paul Shockley contributed to this report.


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