Cary, N.C. — A contractor on Wednesday drilled into a gas main at the intersection of Kildaire Farm Road and Tryon Road in Cary, sparking a fireball that took more than six hours to extinguish and closed the major intersection.
Crews planned to work through the night to have the intersection open for the morning commute on Thursday, said Susan Moran, spokeswoman for the Town of Cary.
Flames from the fire, which started shortly after 11 a.m., shot about 100 feet in the air and could be seen from miles away, Moran said. The smell of natural gas permeated the neighborhood.
"This is really a spectacle," Moran said.
Fulcher Electric Co., a contractor working on the traffic lights at the intersection for the town, was boring into the ground and struck an eight-inch gas main, which then ignited fumes from a truck, said Moran and Angie Townsend, spokeswoman for PSNC Energy.
"They were able to evacuate the immediate area, and shortly thereafter the gas ignited," Cary Fire Chief Allan Cain said.
Cary Fire Department units fought the fire from four directions. The goal was to contain the fire, not save the truck, officials said. Seven fire units, nine police units and two EMS units responded to the scene.
Crews pumped about 80,000 gallons of water an hour on the fire, Moran said, adding Cary wasn't in danger of running short on water because of the statewide drought.
"Although visually it's very dramatic, it's actually a very safe situation. All the natural gas leaking is burning off into the atmosphere," Townsend said.
No injuries were reported, Moran said.
"We were just so blessed with this incident that no one was hurt. And blessed is the only word for it," Moran said.
"Not only was no one hurt during the ignition, but no firefighter, no responder was hurt throughout this day. And that's amazing."
PSNC Energy crews spent much of Wednesday afternoon digging a hole under Kildaire Farm Road to access the gas main to isolate the damaged section and cap it off, Townsend said. The line was capped shortly after 5 p.m., and the gas burned off shortly after that.
"(The main) is carrying a significant load of gas. I cannot begin to speculate on how much gas that is burning off," Townsend said.
Crews have to use specialized equipment to cap off an eight-inch line, she said, describing the main as a relatively small line for the amount of gas that it carries. That makes capping and repairing the line an intricate process, and crews spent part of the afternoon mapping out a strategy to fix the line as quickly and safely as possible.
Officials didn't want to extinguish the fire and leave gas in the pipeline, Moran said.
"This is a major feeder line," she said. "(Fires) could be popping up somewhere else."
The Kildaire Farm-Tryon intersection was shut down through the evening rush hour, causing extensive delays on U.S. 1 and other area roads. Traffic was being rerouted onto Ashville Avenue, Keisler Drive, Crescent Green, New Waverly Place and Regency Parkway.
"I saw it in my rear-view mirror. They had us going through the (WakeMed Cary) hospital to get away from it," Cary resident Jennifer Christiansen said.
Crews will work through the night to meet a self-imposed deadline to have the intersection open by the Thursday morning rush-hour, Moran said. Earlier, officials had said normal traffic flow would not be restored for several days.
"The asphalt around it has melted and buckled up, but considering the dramatic nature of the fire, people would be very surprised if they walked here today," Moran said. "Many people would not notice that something had actually happened."
Workers plan to cut the Fulcher Electric drill off and pull it out of the ground, while PSNC crews repair the damaged gas main. After that work is done, Cary will immediately bring in a road crew to remove the scarred asphalt and repave the area, Moran said.
Parts of the intersection will remain closed during that time, she said. Traffic signal crews are on standby to start work on the lights at the intersection as soon as the road is repaired, she said.
Wake County school buses had to be diverted around the intersection Wednesday afternoon, causing delays in transporting students home from area schools.
About a dozen nearby stores and banks, including the Waverly Place shopping center, were evacuated shortly after the fire started. Businesses were expected to be able to reopen on Thursday.
"Someone said, 'Hey, there's a giant fire outside,'" said Peter McGrath, manager of a nearby TGIFriday's restaurant. "It's hot. You could actually feel the heat (a distance away)."
All of the restaurant employees safely evacuated as firefighters arrived at the scene, McGrath said.
"It was shooting about a hundred feet in the air, and the intensity of the heat and the sound could be felt," said Patrick Farley, who ran from his Tryon Road office to get a closer look at the fire.
Julio Mora's after-school job is at a Burger King nearby, but he didn't get a chance to go in Wednesday.
"I came down to see what happened. Now, I see the explosion, and I guess everyone got evacuated at Burger King," Mora said.
Dozens of workers and curious onlookers gathered about a block away to watch the fire, which WRAL Reporter Adam Owens described as "a giant birthday candle."
"I only see (things like this) in the movies, not live like this. It's very scary," Apex resident Sumathi Ramesh said.
WakeMed Cary wasn't affected by the fire, but the hospital diverted incoming ambulances while the fire raged. Ambulances were again allowed to bring patients to the emergency room Wednesday evening.
"We wanted to make sure we were not bringing patients onto the campus that then would need to be transported somewhere else in case the incident became larger than it did," said Lisbeth Gierman, WakeMed senior vice president and administrator of the Cary hospital.
Cary residents Joe and Candy Slate said they were afraid for their house, about 200 yards from the intersection.
"The fire station is between us and the fire, so we felt good about that," Joe Slate said.
Gas Line Breaks Becoming More Common
The incident marked the second gas line break in a day in connection with the widening of Tryon Road, Moran said. On Tuesday afternoon, a gas line was cut at the intersection of Tryon Road and Cary Parkway, but that was repaired quickly.
In August, gas lines along Maynard Road were cut three times within eight days. Fulcher Electric, however, was not responsible for any of the other gas line breaks over the past two months.
Townsend said cuts are more frequent in growing areas like Cary.
"We try very hard to avoid these situations, but from time to time, they do occur," she said.