Pumphouse heater cause of fire after canal gas leak

Firefighters from Princeton Junction watch Friday night as flames leap from the point of a gasoline leak two hours after a pumphouse heater had set the spilling gas on fire in a large explosion along the Delaware and Raritan Canal near Alexander Road.

(Staff Photo, Paul Savage)


4 February, 1986

Pumphouse heater cause of fire after canal gas leak

By Sally Lane and Barbara Perone 

Staff Writers

WEST WINDSOR — An electric heater suspended from a pumphouse ceiling was the cause of an explosion and fire Friday that destroyed the pumphouse and swept along the Delaware & Raritan Canal, the Mercer County fire marshal said Monday.

A gas pipeline split open Friday afternoon, sending liquid gas 15 feet into the air and forcing four families to evacuate from their homes in the area, West Windsor police Lt. Gregory Eldridge said. No one was injured.

The water, used for consumption by Mercer and Middlesex County residents, is now being cleaned by the New England Pollution Control Co. of Robbinsville, state spokesman James Stales said.

The pollution control company is vacuuming the gas, which floats from the top of the water, and hopefully should be done the end of this week, he said.

Nearly 1,000 gallons of gasoline remained in the canal after the leak and explosion, according to Mr. Staples, state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman.

Sluice gates — which regulate flow— at Lambertville and Kingston were shut immediately after the spill Friday to prevent the contaminated water from spreading, he said. This keeps the water contained in that area. The water is not being used, Mr. Staples said.

The explosion occurred at 8 p.m. Friday after gas fumes from the broken pipeline in the floor of the canal seeped into the pumphouse, igniting when the heater went on, said Fire Marshal George Lenhardt. The broken section was behind the Canal Pointe Associates development off Carnegie Boulevard West.

The cause of the break is not known and is under investigation by state and local authorities.

While emergency services workers fought to contain the leak, gas fumes from the split line seeped in through vents in the Stony Brook Pumping Station, located 1,000 feet south of Alexander Road, Mr. Lenhardt said.

The heater, controlled by a thermostat in the building, probably went on as the external temperature decreased, he said.

The explosion destroyed the 10-by-10-foot cinder block pumphouse and caused a fire in the canal that charted 2,000 trees, Mr. Lenhardt said.

There were no injuries as a result of the explosion, authorities concurred.

“It’s a wonder somebody didn’t get roasted,” Mr. Staples said.

Frank Cox, township chief of police, at the scene when the explosion occurred likened the explosion to four F-16s dropping napalm — a substance used in flame throwers — on the area.

It looked like scenes from ‘Apocalypse Now’ — it’s so remarkable no one was injured,” he said.

Although not injured, Lawrence resident Maureen Thorne said she was “scared to death” by the explosion.

With emergency services workers using her office as their headquarters most of the day, the Canal Pointe Associates employee found herself working overtime Friday when the explosion occurred.

“I was just sitting at my desk looking out the back window and it all went up in flames,” she said.

Aware of the gas leak, Ms. Thorne realized that it must have caused the explosion — but she screamed and ran from the office anyway when it happened, she said.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said.

Too frightened to drive home, the Canal Pointe employee stayed in the office until 1 a.m., discussing the event with a few other employees there time, she said.

The leak in the pipeline, used by the Sun Pipeline Co. to carry gas from a refinery in Marcus Hook, Pa., to a distribution center in Newark, was first spotted at 3:15 p.m. Friday.

Emergency services workers from Lawrence, Plainsboro, Hamilton and Princeton townships and Sun Pipeline Co. officials responded to the scene evacuating the families from the area and working to contain the leak, police said.

Company officials shut the pipe down, and emergency services work placed booms across the canal at Alexander Road and 100 feet south of the split to contain the leak, police said.

At 8 p.m., the workers, trying to contain the spill, were in the general area when a “tremendous” explosion occurred, the lieutenant said.

Firefighters at the scene contained the 3,000-square-foot fire caused by the explosion in the canal, allowing it to burn itself out, he said. In minutes, the fire was nearly out.

By Monday afternoon, the pipeline company had siphoned the gas from the 15-by-20-foot section of the pipe where the split occurred, and police were allowing the evacuated families to return home, Lt. Eldridge said.

Police did not know the cause of split or the amount of gas that spilled into the canal.

The company was scheduled to excavate the pipeline from the bottom of the canal yesterday afternoon so that it could be replaced, he said.

Last week, the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission gave the Wayne Pa. pipeline company permission to cut brush and several small trees from the pipeline so that the firm could monitor the pipeline by aerial surveillance.

James Amon, executive director of the commission, speculated that human error could have caused the crack in the pipeline which inadvertently caused the fire.

The commission estimated that more than 2,000 trees were charred in the fire, and the stones in the top row of a historic wall lining the canal were cracked, he said.

“It will have to be determined who is responsible for restoration,” Mr. Amon said. “Somehow the pipeline broke — I don’t know how, but it just did not break. Someone is responsible for that,” he said.

West Windsor Deputy Mayor Carolyn Bronson seemed to share Mr. Staples’ optimistic view about how soon the cleanup would be completed.

“By the time the trees bloom spring,” she said, “you’ll never know there was a drop (of gasoline) in the canal.”

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