Investigators look for cause
By Mike Peters

The Greeley Tribune
25 March 2003

Colorado pipeline blast leaves 1000 foot crater

It may be months before investigators find the cause of an explosion and fire that lit up the sky north of Greeley on Sunday night.

Eaton Fire Department investigators and officials of Colorado Interstate Gas, the owner of the 24-inch pipeline that exploded, said Monday that finding the cause could be difficult.

A huge crater was left at the site of the explosion, Weld County roads 72 and 31, and much of the evidence to the cause may have gone up in the explosion and 500-foot tower of flames.

The crater was 1,000 feet long, 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep, according to Eaton Deputy Chief Warren Milne. A 35- foot-long section of the gas pipe was blown out of the hole, then split lengthwise.

The pipe is being sent to a laboratory for analysis to possibly determine what ignited the blaze.

Although it hasn't been ruled out, investigators so far have found no evidence of terrorism or sabotage. They declined to speculate about how the blaze was ignited or about any equipment malfunction or other problems that could have caused the gas leak.

Colorado Interstate Gas Co. spokesman Mel Scott said he couldn't confirm a report that an electrical short at a nearby pump house may have ignited the blaze.

"That's a new one to me," he said late Monday night. "We don't and we won't speculate on the cause of a fire like this until the investigation is complete."

He added that officials haven't estimated the amount of damage yet or how the explosion could affect the company. No one was injured. The 24-inch pipe carried natural gas into Weld County and was just laid last summer, according to residents in the area. The pipe did not carry gas to homes or businesses, but was used to carry gas for the gas companies that serve Weld.

According to Karen Wilkes of Atmos Gas, formerly Greeley Gas, the normal gas line to a residence is only three- fourths of an inch in diameter. "So you can see how much more gas is carried in a 24-inch pipe."

Only three families were evacuated from the area.

The people who live closest to the fire - the Nelson family - reported heat damage to their home, including melted insulation in the walls and door, and melted sides of a new hot tub. They were told the owner of the pipeline would pay for their damages. Officials have not yet made a damage estimate to the pipe and homes around the site.

A second nearby home had damage to its windows.

Problems beyond the fire damage were created by the blaze. Firefighters and law officers both complained Sunday night and Monday about the traffic jam created by the hundreds of people who were driving to the scene.

Milne said he was south of Greeley when the explosion occurred. What was normally a 15-minute trip from Greeley to the site took him 45 minutes because of the traffic.

Greeley police, Weld County sheriff's deputes and Colorado State Patrol troopers directed traffic at all intersections around the site, but many of the roads were overloaded and movement stopped completely.

In addition, the Weld County Dispatch Center - which is responsible for sending fire trucks and police to the scenes of emergencies - was overloaded.

"People were calling from towns all over the county, even from Wyoming, and saying the fire was in their town or neighborhood," Sgt. Jon Baker said.

Windsor Tribune reporter Nikolaus Olsen contributed to this story.

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