The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

September 20, 2011

Rig explosion

WATONGA — Authorities are investigating the circumstances surrounding a natural gas rig explosion that occurred Monday night southeast of Watonga in Blaine County.

The rig, owned and operated by Patterson-UTI Drilling, was contracted by Continental Resources to drill for natural gas at the Moseley 1-5H location in the Anadarko Woodford formation, about three miles east and three miles south of Watonga.

Blaine County Sheriff Ricky Ainsworth said the rig explosion was reported shortly after 10 p.m. Monday. He said the rig’s workers were able to flee before the explosion and there were no injuries.

Blaine County Sheriff’s Office and Watonga Fire and Rescue responded to the ensuing blaze, assisted by fire departments from Canton, Watonga, Hitchcock, Okeene, Greenfield and Geary, as well as Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

Ainsworth said most of the fire departments and law enforcement personnel were released within two hours, because “there wasn’t much that could be done at the time.” He said the fire remained contained to the drilling location.

Authorities blocked off roads within one mile of the rig and evacuated several residences within a mile of the fire.

The evacuation radius later was extended to two miles, affecting approximately 20 residences, and a temporary shelter was established at Blaine County Fairgrounds. The evacuation radius was reduced to one mile shortly after 4 a.m. Tuesday, Ainsworth said.  

Continental Resources personnel took over responsibility for maintaining the evacuation radius after 4 a.m. Tuesday, Ainsworth said.

Most residents were allowed to return to their homes by Tuesday morning, but Ainsworth said one residence inside the one-mile radius still was evacuated Tuesday afternoon.

Sharon Whitmire, who lives approximately one mile north of the rig, declined to evacuate her home after the explosion. She was sitting in the living room of her trailer home when the explosion occurred.

“It just sounded like a bomb went off,” Whitmire said. “It was very loud, and I just didn’t know what to think. At first I thought, ‘Why is that rig so loud tonight?’ and then I thought, ‘Is someone bombing us here?’”

Whitmire said she immediately went outside after the explosion to see flames reaching into the sky.

“It was really bright, and the fire was so loud you couldn’t hardly sleep inside,” she said.

Whitmire said the sheriff’s office came to her house twice Monday night and knocked on the door, but she didn’t answer the door and didn’t evacuate.

“With all the noise ... I just didn’t really know what was going on and I didn’t want to answer the door,” she said.

One half mile west of Whitmire, Justin Cole returned home with his wife and daughter after 10 p.m. Monday to see the flames lighting up the night sky behind his home.

“We saw the glow from a ways off before we got home, and I told my wife, ‘That rig’s on fire,’” he said.

When the family arrived home, they clearly could see from their backyard flames reaching the top of the rig. Cole said 30 to 45 minutes later, the rig appeared to twist and then buckle in the fire’s heat.

“From what I could see, the whole rig looked like it was bent up, like it was melting, and then it just fell,” Cole said.

Cole, his wife and daughter were evacuated by sheriff’s deputies shortly after midnight and returned to their home early Tuesday morning.

Watonga residents reported hearing the explosion and seeing flames from more than three miles away.

Jerry Callahan, who lives two miles west of the rig fire, said the flames clearly were visible from his home Monday night.

“My wife came in the house and said something had happened to the rig,” Callahan said. “I went to the back door, and you could see the flames real well. You could hear the fire all night, just roaring.”

The fire could continue to burn for several days, said Continental Resources spokesman Brian Engel.

“The well is continuing a managed burn, which is the safest course of action,” Engel said Tuesday afternoon.

He said personnel from Wild Well Control Inc., an oil well control and firefighting company, were present at the scene of the fire Tuesday.

“Once they have removed the debris they will be able to go in and extinguish the fire, but for the time being the fire is contained,” Engel said.

A host of state and federal agencies are lining up to investigate the accident, even while the fire continues to burn.

Oklahoma Corporation Commission spokesman Matt Skinner said OCC investigators were on scene Tuesday to determine “what may have gone wrong and how the explosion occurred.” The Corporation Commission regulates all oil and gas drilling in the state.

Skinner said investigators made a preliminary determination Tuesday “there was no environmental damage to groundwater” as a result of the explosion and fire. He said investigators were examining Patterson-UTI records and interviewing employees Tuesday, but the investigation will not begin in earnest until the fire is extinguished.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesman Juan Rodriguez said OSHA also had an investigator at the fire scene Tuesday.

“At this point we don’t really know the extent of our investigation into this incident,” Rodriguez said, “but in general we would be looking for violations, trying to determine the cause and interviewing eyewitnesses and employees.”

He said OSHA will have up to six months to complete its investigation.

Bureau of Land Management public affairs specialist Paul McGuire said BLM also will be involved in the investigation. He said BLM has jurisdiction to join the investigation because the well was drilled into American Indian-owned mineral interests.

Patterson-UTI did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

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