Jan 17, 2021 10:30 AM

20-years since gas explosions, reflections on a scary time in Hutchinson

Posted Jan 17, 2021 10:30 AM
January 2001 Photo from Hutchinson Fire Department
January 2001 Photo from Hutchinson Fire Department

By NICK GOSNELL

Hutch Post

HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Rex Buchanan, retired from the Kansas Geological Survey noted that several things all came together to allow for the gas explosions in the city of Hutchinson on January 17 and 18, 2001.

"I looked at some of those old maps of Hutch in that process," Buchanan said. "Maps of where those old drill holes were that people knew about. That didn't count the ones they didn't know about. It was...everybody will use that Swiss cheese analogy and that was really true, there were holes all over the place that allowed that gas to do what it did."

According to a paper published in 2003, the Geological Survey said on the morning of January 17, 2001, a gas explosion occurred in downtown Hutchinson, Kansas. Later that day, gas geysers began erupting 2 miles to the east along the eastern edge of Hutchinson. The following day, a gas explosion at a trailer park near the geysers in eastern Hutchinson led to the death of two people.

"Initially there was an awful lot of confusion about exactly what the cause of that was," Buchanan said. "It really took, sort of an improbable series of events and circumstances for that to come together and occur, but over time it was pretty clear what those circumstances were."

The outgassing in the city began two days after a major gas leak in a natural gas storage well, S-1, at the Yaggy gas-storage facility seven miles northwest of Hutchinson.

"When those were reopened, one of the well bores was damaged in some drilling and when that gas was under pressure, it went out through that damaged spot, found a rock unit it could move through, went out through the city of Hutch and, unfortunately, found some old well bores, mostly from salt mining or other activity days and moved up those and created the situation that you saw 20 years ago."

In response to the explosions, 57 vent wells and five observation wells were drilled in the city of Hutchinson and westward towards the Yaggy storage facility.

Three HutchCC Fire Science instructors were on the department during the explosions. Former McPherson Fire Chief Jeff Deal was Fire Training Captain on the Hutchinson Fire Department in January of 2001.

Photo from Kansas Geological Survey Powerpoint Presentation
Photo from Kansas Geological Survey Powerpoint Presentation

"We were sitting in the training office at 18 East B Street, Chief Patterson and I, and we heard the explosion," Deal said. "Pictures on the wall rattled. He and I looked at each other and we said, something's going on. We both got up and jumped in our vehicles and just headed out even before the tones went off. You could see a column of smoke just northwest of us."

Mike McCandless was the driver on one of the first responding engines to the explosion.

"By the time we got around the corner to Decor, there was brick scattered throughout the street and people were running from the building, getting in their cars and leaving," McCandless said. "There was a big column of smoke and fire at the back of the building. We pulled up, set our ladder up and started throwing water on it."

It took awhile before firefighters knew that the gas was not coming from a gas line.

"We got a hold of the utilities company and said shut all the gas off," Deal said. "You could tell by the back of the building that this was a pressure fed fire. We said, we've broken a gas line, shut all the gas down. I remember them shutting all the gas down and one of my superiors yelled at me and said, go get with those guys. They're telling me the gas is shut off. How come this thing isn't getting any smaller? I went and personally met with a couple of the utility guys in the alley behind the Decor building and said, what is going on? They said, we've shut everything off in like a two block area and I said, shut it off wider then, because it ain't working. After they went out another level, we realized. This isn't local gas. We don't have any control over whatever this is."

Because of the lack of other fire activity in the city at the time, at least initially, Hutchinson firefighters didn't ask for a lot of outside help.

"I was on a reserve apparatus," said Jason Holland, who had actually worked the night before, but came back in to help. "We have reserve engines. I stayed at the fire station. We shut off all medical responses and then we protected the rest of the city with four firefighters and one fire truck while everyone else was down at the explosion."

As the fire stretched into its second day, the department called on help from outside.

"I don't know who made the call, but we actually brought in HCC Fire Science students who came and manned some of our stationary monitors, our stationary hand lines that don't move, spraying water," Deal said. "We just had them come sit on the hand lines so that we could get some of our guys out of the cold and get them to rehab."

Part of the reason the second explosion happened at the trailer home of John and Mary Hahn in the Big Chief Mobile Home Park, is because the gas that was coming up out of the ground was not odorized.

"Those people couldn't smell it at all," McCandless said. "They didn't know it was there until the trailer blew up."

It is presumed that an attempt to cook is what ignited the gas.

"They skirt these trailers," Deal said. "They put this skirting around the trailers in order to insulate them and that's what trapped the gas. If it had been an unskirted trailer, it may have just dissipated."

The Hahns both died from their injuries. Getting rid of the gas so similar incidents couldn't happen changed the landscape of the city for months.

Vent Well photo Kansas Geological Survey
Vent Well photo Kansas Geological Survey

"If you flew over Hutchinson, you would see us look like the top of a birthday cake," Holland said. "We had flares, six, eight, ten flares."

Those flares were important because you can't smell the gas, and you could only sometimes see where it was seeping.

"The way you fix this problem is you burn it off," Deal said. "Consume it. Any place that they found gas that was seeping up, like they said, they would drill a hole, they would actually concentrate that gas and then they would put a flare on it. If you go by the refinery in McPherson, you will see flares at the top of stacks, they're doing the same thing."

An archived article from April of that year from the Oil and Gas Journal noted nine flares still active at the writing of that piece.

"It was scary," Holland said. "It really was a scary situation, because you never knew. You have to look back in history in Hutchinson. When they did the salt mining, they would go and put in brine wells. You would go and you would have all these abandoned pipes stuck in the ground, three, four hundred, five hundred feet deep. It's just an open hole for that gas to find, like a chimney and, boom, whatever is sitting on top of it, if it's an ignition source, look out."

According to a report from the Kansas Gas Service, after the gas flow from the vent wells subsided, the KGS coordinated two NASA flights over Hutchinson and Reno County to make sure no gas leaks had gone undetected.