Pipeline Explosion Kills 10 Campers in N.M.

Aug. 20, 2000 -- Federal, state and local authorities are investigating the cause of Saturday’s natural gas pipeline explosion that killed five adults and five children and left two other people in critical condition in southeast New Mexico.

The victims, members of two extended families, were camping early Saturday morning near the Pecos River, about 200 to 300 yards from the below-ground explosion.

The two adult survivors were in critical condition in a Lubbock, Texas hospital.

The 30-inch pipeline exploded around 5:30 a.m. Saturday, and left a crater about 86 feet long, 46 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Police say the resulting fire probably lasted 30 to 40 minutes. It reportedly was visible about 20 miles to the north in Carlsbad, N.M.

Virtual Flamethrower

Authorities said one end of the ruptured line became a virtual flame-thrower, showering fire on the victims camped beneath a bridge about 200 yards away.

“The evidence out there at the scene indicates it was horrendously hot,” State Police Capt. John Balderston said. “It incinerated everything in its path. If it burned for as long as we think it burned, that explains the extensive damage to the vehicles and to the property and people.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he added. “We’ve had some tragedies but this is the worst I’ve seen.”

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board is on the scene, and Gov. Gary Johnson is to tour the site later today.

Pipeline Co. Sees No Foul Play

John Somerhalder, president of the pipeline group of El Paso Energy, the parent company of El Paso Natural Gas Co., says his company is cooperating fully with investigators. But he adds he believes the explosion was an accident.

“We saw no indication there was third party damage or foul play,” Somerhalder said. “It is, was a very major tragedy that occurred [Saturday], and it occurred as a result of a rupture of one of our pipelines.”

A New Mexico State Police spokesman said most of the victims were up and some were fishing when the explosion occurred. But they were helpless to escape the inferno.

“They were consumed by a huge ball of fire,” state police Lt. Larry Rogers said.

Rogers said the campers had lanterns so they could fish through the night and also had a small campfire going.

Balderston said one survivor recalled being awakened by a man yelling fire.

“She stands up and discovers she’s on fire and jumps in the river,” Balderston said. “Then returns to get her children and can’t, because it’s so intense.”

Campsite Incinerated

Down by the water, investigators found sleeping bags and tents melted, he said.

“The only reason we could tell it was a tent was the geometric design of the poles,” Balderston said.

Six people died at the scene and three others died Saturday night at University Medical Center in Lubbock. A 5-year-old girl died late Saturday while en route by air ambulance to a Shriners Hospital in Galveston, Texas.

Those who died at the Lubbock hospital were Roy Lee Heady, 20, his wife, Amy, 18, and Glenda Sumler, 47. Kirsten Sumler, 5, was pronounced dead on arrival at Shriners Hospital in Galveston. She was Glenda Sumler’s granddaughter.

The Headys’ three girls, 22-month-old Kelsey and 6-month-old twins Timber and Tamber, died in the explosion. Also killed at the campsite were Terry Smith, 23, and his son, Dustin, 3, and father-in-law Don Sumler.

Bobby Smith, 43, and his daughter-in-law, Amanda Smith, 25, survived. Amanda Smith was Terry Smith’s wife and the mother of Kirsten Sumler.

Popular Site

Balderston said the area is not a developed camping area, but is popular with area residents because it provides easy access to the Pecos River.

“They were there to enjoy the shade the bridge offered,” Balderston said.

The pipeline was 5 to 6 feet underground at the rupture point, El Paso Natural Gas Co. spokeswoman Norma Dunn said today.

“It is an absolute mystery right now as to why that blew,” Balderston said. Dunn added that investigators may never be able to say what sparked it.

“We saw a large ball of flames,” Balderston said. “The fire department was able to find six people in the river, walking, west of the incident.”

Dunn said the bridge carries the pipeline across the river. The pipeline then goes underground, and the explosion occurred on the east side of the river, she said.

The explosion occurred in an area where the pipeline crosses the river. It is isolated and unpopulated, with the surrounding terrain dotted with scrub and creosote. Amid the desolate surroundings today sat the broken and blackened pipeline.

Could Have Been Anything

Dunn said the explosion could have been touched off by anything — from a spark generated by rocks striking each other, someone lighting a cigarette or coal from a barbecue.

The pipeline supplies gas to power plants in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, she said. Somerholder said crews were working today to get the line back in service because it is a major supply line.

Somerholder said the line was installed in 1950, but said there did not appear to be any correlation between the age of the pipeline and the explosion.

“Most of our pipelines in this age range are in very good shape,” he said.

Dunn said the line was last checked Aug. 2.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.