A major natural gas line exploded Thursday outside a large Minneapolis supermarket, spewing flames skyward just 100 yards from a busy freeway and snarling rush-hour traffic but injuring nobody in what fire officials called an amazing stroke of luck.
The blast and fire scorched parked vehicles and opened a large hole in the street near the entrance to a Cub Foods store. Homes and businesses in an eight-block area surrounding the fire were evacuated for several hours, and Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn said the outcome might have been might worse.
"That's phenomenal!" she said hours after the blast about how no one was hurt. "That is. Wow!"
Streams of people, some in pajamas carrying children, walked away from the scene shortly after the midmorning explosion. They were allowed to return home by midday.
The explosion happened so close to the interchange of Interstate 35W and Highway 62 that the highways were closed for several hours until the gas line was shut off at about 10:30 a.m. One section of the interstate remained closed longer as it was inspected for damage before being pronounced safe.
Cars in the parking lot were scorched in the blast, some leaning because both tires on one side had melted. Melted red plastic hung from the Cub Foods sign.
It was a major trunk gas line for that section of Minneapolis, and state pipeline safety officials were on the scene, according to Rebecca Virden, a spokeswoman for CenterPoint Energy. She said it was too early to determine the cause.
Len Slade said he was in the grocery's doorway when the explosion happened across the street from the parking lot. He said he saw what appeared to be black liquid spewing from the ground before the flames appeared. A Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman said later it was dirty water from a storm sewer line.
"It looked like when you see an oil well bubble up out of the ground, like when they strike oil," Slade said.
He said the explosion was muffled. He said he tried to get to his car in the parking lot, but had to retreat into the building because the heat was so intense.
"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 customers and employees were evacuated soon after.
Bob Harris said he and his wife, Marilyn, didn't hear an explosion. The couple, who lives just a few blocks from the scene, was 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 area. Harris described the evacuation as calm and orderly, and said most evacuees were just curious about what was happening.
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 grade 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.
Stephanie Stinson had just gotten to the gate from the apartment complex to Cub Foods when the explosion happened.
"It was like a giant mushroom ... like somebody had just dropped an atomic bomb," Stinson said. Her daughter was "screaming bloody murder."
Stinson said she grabbed her daughter and rushed back to their apartment, where she said it felt like 90 degrees. She alerted other residents and they all walked to a gas station a few blocks away. People were in such a hurry that many of the children didn't have socks or shoes on their feet. She said she gave her daughter's socks to a barefoot boy.
Heat from the fire damaged some power lines, street lights, electrical poles, and vehicles in the immediate area. Damage estimates had yet to be determined.
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.
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.