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Published March 17, 2011, 03:03 PM

Fiery Explosion in South Minneapolis; No Injuries

Video of blaze inside
A natural gas line exploded in south Minneapolis on Thursday, sending flames shooting high into the sky, scorching nearby vehicles and forcing authorities to close a busy freeway until officials could inspect it for damage.

By: Tara Bannow, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A natural gas line exploded in south Minneapolis on Thursday, sending flames shooting high into the sky, scorching nearby vehicles and forcing authorities to close a busy freeway until officials could inspect it for damage.

Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn told reporters the gas has been shut off, and that there are no known injuries. Residents were temporarily evacuated from the immediate area.

The initial blast around 8:30 a.m. left a large hole in the road in front of a Cub Foods supermarket near the interchange of Interstate 35W and Highway 62. Cars in the parking lot were scorched in the blast.

Penn said a second explosion rocked the area a little later. The flames died after authorities shut off the gas line at about 10:30 a.m.

Gas levels in the air had reached 80 parts per million but are back down to zero, Penn said.

"I think the situation is as under control as it can be," Mayor R.T. Rybak told reporters.

A major trunk gas line for that section of Minneapolis exploded, and state pipeline safety officials are on the scene, according to Rebecca Virden, a spokeswoman for CenterPoint Energy. She said it was too early to determine the cause.

Witness Len Slade said he was at the Cub Foods before the explosion and saw a black liquid spewing from the ground. It wasn't immediately clear what that liquid was.

"It looked like when you see an oil well bubble up out of the ground, like when they strike oil," he said.

Slade said he was in the doorway of the store, across the sprawling parking lot from the fire, when something ignited with a poof. He said the heat was so intense that he had to retreat into the building.

"You could feel the heat coming through the front door," he said.

Slade, a vice president with Jerry's Enterprises, which operates the store, said employees were evacuated soon after.

Bob Harris said he and his wife, Marilyn, didn't hear an explosion. They were eating breakfast when someone from the fire department knocked on their door and told them to leave their home. They joined a crowd of people walking away from the explosion area. Harris described the evacuation as calm and orderly, with the crowd mostly curious about what was happening.

Kiara Jones said a neighbor called to tell her she had to evacuate her home about three blocks from the blast. "You could feel the heat outside my house," Jones said. "They said the manholes might blow."

An apartment complex, day care and church near the scene were evacuated, and people inside the grocery store were told to leave through the back. A K-8 school was evacuated and students were sent to another school, one of three Minneapolis public schools that were put on lockdown. School officials planned to keep students indoors for the rest of the day.

By late morning people were being allowed to return to everywhere but the immediate area around the supermarket.

Concerns that the extreme heat may have damaged a nearby overpass on the Interstate 35W forced the Minnesota Department of Transportation to temporarily close the highway in both directions, agency spokesman Todd Kramascz said. The northbound lanes were reopened just before 11am, but the southbound lanes, which are closer to the blast site, remained closed while officials checked for damage. Scorch marks were clearly visible on the road.

"We just want to make sure there is no structural damage," Kramascz said.

Highway 62, from Portland Avenue to Xerxes Avenue, also was briefly closed to traffic.

On Sept. 9, a natural gas explosion in San Bruno, Calif., sparked a massive fireball that killed eight people and destroyed three dozen homes in the suburb overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

The investigation and recriminations continue. Earlier this week, California regulators said they planned to fine Pacific Gas & Electric Co. up to $1 million a day for failing to turn over key safety records.

PG&E spokesman Joe Molica has said the company is not yet satisfied with the results of its records search.

Just over a year ago, another natural gas explosion destroyed a St. Paul home, prompting a lawsuit and forcing Xcel Energy Co. — the Twin Cities' other major gas provider — to start a sweeping process to make sure it didn't happen again.

State regulators quickly ordered Xcel to create a plan to fix other gas lines that had been inadvertently pierced by sewer pipes or face a $1 million fine. The effort was expected to take three years. As of last month, the Star Tribune reported that 25,000 sewer lines had been inspected at a cost of about $4 million. Fifty-seven of the so-called "cross bores" were located and repaired at no cost to customers.