A California public works employee and a county jail inmate were seriously burned when a natural gas line exploded at a sheriff’s gun range near Fresno Friday, sending a fireball into the sky and sparking several smaller fires, authorities said.
Nine others, including other inmates on a work detail, were also taken to area hospitals for treatment after the gas line near the Fresno County sheriff’s shooting range exploded at around 2:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. ET), Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims told reporters.
Deputies at the scene said "it sounded like a jet engine going off as a result of the gas and the fire," Mims said.
The explosion occurred as the public works employee was operating a front-end loader on a road near a berm behind the gun range targets and as an inmate work crew was working nearby, Mims said.
The force of the blast threw the county worker from the front-end loader. He suffered "very serious injuries," but was able to walk to an ambulance. An inmate was also seriously injured and was airlifted to a hospital. Both were undergoing emergency surgery Friday evening, Mims said.
"Of course our thoughts are going out to the heavy equipment operator, that he's going to be OK, as well as the inmates that were injured," she said. "As you know, burns are very serious and the risk of infection is very serious." Three inmates who were also working at the gun range were not injured and taken back to the county jail.
The heat from the fire was so great that it melted plastic trash cans lining a building about 400 feet away. Two sheriff’s deputies who ran to the scene ordered other workers to run to the San Joaquin River as the fire raged. "That fire was very, very hot," Mims said.
Nearby Highway 99 had to be closed down for an hour, said Dan Lynch, the Central California emergency medical services director.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which said they were investigating, shut down the gas line. "Our primary concern is the safety of the public and our employees," PG&E said in a tweet.
— Elisha Fieldstadt and Phil Helsel