Jon Ostendorff, Asheville Citizen-Times
ASHEVILLE -- Crews have completed repairs to a 12-inch gas line that ruptured Friday on Sand Hill Road, sparking a fireball that shot well above the treeline and rattled buildings for miles Friday afternoon.
PSNC Energy workers will go door-to-door starting this morning to turn on meters and relight pilot lights for about 700 customers who lost natural gas service because of the repair work, spokeswoman Angela Townsend said.
The company hasn't yet determined what caused the blast, she said.
A portion of Sand Hill Road remained closed this morning as workers repair the roadway.
Though there was heat damage to nearby buildings, amazingly, no one was injured. In its aftermath, the explosion left a huge crater in the road.
Raymond Bettman had just left the bank and was on the way to pay his bills when the pickup truck coming toward him on Sand Hill Road swerved.
He saw the tailgate and trailer it was hauling jump like it had hit something, and all of the sudden his windshield was covered with dirt.
Bettman hit the wipers in his 1997 Ford van and watched as chunks of asphalt rained down.
Angela Bishop, who was riding with him, said the blast sounded like a bomb.
He pulled into a nearby business parking lot as flames started shooting from the road about 100 feet away. They ran into the building, where they stayed until firefighters evacuated them to Enka Baptist Church.
They sat at a table at the church hours later and told their story.
"Another three seconds, we would have been in the explosion and flames," he said.
"Toast," Bishop said.
Firefighters from across Western North Carolina responded to the massive blaze shortly before 4 p.m., emergency officials said.
The fire could be seen for miles.
The blaze was out at 5:35 p.m. after the gas was turned off. Crews from PSNC Energy, the natural gas utility serving the Asheville Area, were busy Friday evening working on repairs.
Power was also out to about 86 customers in the area Friday evening, but Justin Landon, spokesman for Duke Energy Progress, said the company hoped to have that restored by about 8 p.m.
Businesses and residents of Enka Village were evacuated, said Kelley Klope, a spokeswoman for the Asheville Fire Department.
Smith Dray Line and the front of manufacturer Jacob Holm Industries suffered heat damage, she said. Several houses that face Sand Hill Road were also damaged by the heat.
Firefighters sprayed the homes and buildings with water while waiting on PSNC to shut off the gas.
Sand Hill Road was closed to traffic between Sardis Road and U.S. 19-23.
Klope said residents were expected to be able to return home Friday night after the power was restored to the area and the road reopened.
Steve Weil was at his home off Sardis Road, working in his office, when he heard an explosion and felt a shock wave about 3:40 p.m.
Running into his backyard, he could see an orange fireball shooting above the 50-foot trees.
"I could feel the heat. It's probably a good half-mile away," Weil said.
Jan Curtis, who works at Debruhl's Used Cars about a quarter of a mile away, heard an explosion.
"It shook the whole building here," she said. "I thought somebody hit the building."
She said flames were about 200 feet high.
"I was talking to my mom in West Asheville, and she said it rattled her windows," Curtis said.
Curtis said everyone at the business "got that sick feeling in the pit of our stomach ... then most said a prayer for anyone involved."
Doug Ledford said his wife felt the explosion at their home on Asbury Road, about 3/4 of a mile from the intersection of Sand Hill and U.S. 19-23.
"She felt it," he said. "It shook the earth."
Klope said the cause of the rupture was under investigation.