Painful Memories Of Pipeline Explosion Remain Scorched Into Landscape, Minds Of Glouster Community


UPDATED: Wednesday October 24, 2012 7:43 PM

Almost one year ago, life came to a shocking standstill in one rural part of Ohio.

On Nov. 16, 2011, the deafening roar of a gas pipeline exploding and catching fire interrupted the early morning calm.

It marked a defining moment for the people in and near Glouster, on the Athens-Morgan County border, and those who were sworn to protect it.

Within minutes of the explosion, 911 calls came pouring in while other people captured the inferno on their cell phones.

“The flames were shooting at least a couple hundred feet into the air,” Brian Bane said.

The initial force of the explosion could be heard up to 15 miles away.

“It sounded like a jet engine landed on our property,” Bane said.

George Pallo and his fellow Jacksonville volunteer firefighters were the first to rush to the scene.

“We’re talking 1,000 years of experience with everybody that was there -- and nobody had any inkling of what was going on,” Pallo said.

Pallo said he would never forget the sound.

“It was just such a loud roar, just a continuous non-stop roar - those flames were going in all different directions,” Pallo said.

The heat was so great that Pallo’s crew was forced to move their trucks.

“I'm watching all this stuff go up in front of me, and couldn't do anything about it,” Pallo said.

Their first priority was getting people out of homes that were already burning. In immediate danger were Pallo’s friends, John and Cathy Sayers. Their home was only about 50 feet away from the exploding pipe.

As fate would have it, John Sayers had already left earlier that morning to have coffee at a local restaurant with friends.

“They said I would have been blown through the front part of the house if it would have been wood,” Cathy Sayers said. “The brick is what saved me from getting, you know, probably knocked out and burned up."

Authorities said that fate was also in Cathy's favor because the pipe and plume of flames were pointed away from her house -- already charring the hillside -- and scorching trees right down to their stumps.

“I looked out the window, and I saw vinyl siding melting down the window, and I knew then that the pipeline had exploded, and I had to get out,” Cathy said.  “It was a terrible roar, I was screaming, and I couldn't hear myself screaming.”

Afraid for her life, Cathy charged through the home, saving what she could.

“There was a peace that came over me,” Cathy said. “There was someone in there with me and I knew I was going to get out.”

Armed with precious pictures, her purse and a jewelry box, she was ready to go, dressed in only a nightgown and slippers.

“I slipped as soon as I got out of the house. The whole back of my nightgown was muddy, and I think that's why it didn't catch fire -- the heat was tremendous -- and the roar, and my hair got all wet from the rain, and I think that's why I made it," she said.

The heat scorched Cathy as she made her escape.

“It burnt my legs, as I was going down I rubbed the sides of my legs, and it burnt the hair right off my legs. It won't grow back,” she said.

Thankfully, Cathy’s physical injuries were not severe, but the emotional wounds  are taking longer to heal .

“It’ll never be like it was, it will never will be,” John said.

The Sayers believe it was a miracle that kept them both alive.

“I don't know, I didn't know I was worthy of it,” Cathy said. "But there's a plan for me, and I'll find out what it is."

The Sayers' home was one of three buildings destroyed, along with a barn. About 50 acres of countryside were singed to the ground.  In the days after, the hillside looked like a scene out of “Dante's Inferno.”

Fire crews said that it took more than four hours to extinguish the flames after the pipeline company had shut off the gas.

Months later, investigators determined the cause of the explosion was a progression of shifting soil and landslides over time, putting extreme pressure on the pipe, a problem not detected through the company's normal inspection procedures.

The investigative report also noted a pre-existing crack in a welded portion of the pipe was a contributing factor in the explosion.  The report's conclusion indicated even without the crack, the undetected landslides would have eventually caused the pipe to fail.

As time slowly heals the visible scars, the gas company is working on the Sayers' property, and the landscape is drastically changing.  Huge sections of new pipe will be buried and connected together in the area around where the existing pipe ruptured - with plans to restore service as early as next month.

As the company moves forward, so are the people living in this community.

Pallo, who has lived in nearby Jacksonville his whole life, currently serving as mayor - has taken the responsibility head on with a tenacity that matches the never-back-down reputation of the town's volunteer fire department, where he and his sons have been members for years.

"After that day, I found out how tough we really are,” Pallo said.

Pallo has  been busy the past year. Immediately after the explosion, he started enlisting help from gas companies, agencies and other volunteer fire departments to get everyone on the same page.

The primary task was making sure his crews learned the location, size and pressure of all public and private gas lines.

“It's been really interesting some of the things we've learned that we know now - we won't be scared the next time,” Pallo said.

While Pallo’s crew gains more knowledge in case there is another tragedy, the Sayers continue their waiting game. All that remains of their home is ash and rubble.

“It’s been real bad.  I had hope of being able to build back out here, but we can’t,” Cathy said.

After months of negotiations, the Sayers finally settled with the company this summer. They said that the turning point was when executives came out to see for themselves what was left of their crumbled dreams.

“I think that meeting opened their eyes quite a bit, so they could feel our pain a little bit,” John said.

The Sayers said that nothing would ever replace the years of memories in their home. But after months of uncertainty, they have made the tough decision to build a new house, in a different location, away from the place that was the only home they knew.

“I think that's the hardest part,” Cathy said. “Not being able to be back out here.”

The couple said that they would miss walking over the hillside and gazing at the view.

“I kept this place looking like a golf course, for the most part,” John said.

With a new beginning ahead of them, John and Cathy count their blessings.

“I don't like starting over at my age, but we're forced into it,” John said. “You've got to make the best of the worst situation, and that's what we're going to do.”

With painful memories scorched into their minds and the landscape they loved, the couple will push on.

“We’ll make it,” Cathy said.

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