A large Pacific Gas & Electric Co pipe line exploded on Friday afternoon triggering a soaring spire of flames injuring thirteen people and snarling traffic for hours along Highway 99.
The Fresno Bee reported that the fiery blast occurred at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation gun range nearby the Highway 99 bridge over the San Joaquin River. Eleven of those injured were hospitalized and treated for burns.
Ten of the injured victims were Fresno County prisoners working at the gun range as part of their jail assignments. Four of the burn victims were in Community Regional Medical Center in critical condition.
Kevin Ling, a freelance photographer from the Bay Area was traveling along the highway when he witnessed the explosion. “It was huge. Flames were shooting up maybe 150 to 200 feet,” he said. “The heat was so intense, you couldn’t stay there for more than a few seconds.”
A county worker operating a heavy equipment tractor at the foundation “was blown from the frontloader” when the explosion occurred less than 200 feet away.
Sheriff Margaret Mims said at this point they don’t know what caused the pipe to rupture. She said the yard looks like a “crater,” with all the grass at the gun range charred. Moreover, the tractor involved was “completely demolished.” Mims said that “Our thoughts are going out to the heavy equipment operator and that he is going to be OK, as well as the inmates who were injured.”
Two sheriff’s deputies at the gun range were far enough away from the explosion not to be burned and were able to help the victims. Mims said “they immediately went to the aid of the inmates and the frontloader operator.” The Bee reported that the deputies were treated for ringing in their ears and skin exposure similar to a sunburn.
Terrie Prosper, director of public information for the California Public Utilities Commission said that they have sent a team to investigate the situation.
“The immediate goal is to support and not hinder in any way the jobs of the first responders in making the area safe. The CPUC will conduct a full investigation of the explosion and has already coordinated with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration,” Prosper said.