Oakland explosion: ‘Loss of pressure,’ then big blast

Mike Martindale, and Shawn D. Lewis

Orion Township — Consumers Energy recorded a sudden loss of pressure in a 22-inch natural gas main shortly before the 66-year-old pipeline exploded Monday night, causing a massive fire that lit up the sky in northern Oakland County.

The disclosure from the utility came Tuesday as officials began investigating the cause of the blast, which left a crater nearly 20 feet deep and knocked out Oakland County 911 service for several hours. No injuries were reported.

Consumers expects the probe into the cause of the explosion to take several weeks.

“Our system noticed a loss of pressure about 10 minutes before the fire was reported,” utility spokesman Brian M. Wheeler told The Detroit News. “We are not aware of any other issues, but are continuing our investigation.”

The pipeline’s normal pressure is 600 pounds per square inch, Wheeler said.

“We don’t know what caused the ignition,” said Debra Dodd, a Consumers spokeswoman.

Mary Palkovich, Consumers Energy vice president of gas engineering and supply, said the drop in pressure was caused “because the pipe opened up.”

“We can’t yet tell the metallurgical analysis, which will tell us why it failed, until we complete our investigation,” she told The News. “It should take about four weeks or so.”

Investigators haven’t found anything suspicious or unusual that would point to an intentional act, according to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

The blaze began about 11 p.m. Monday on the north side of Brown Road, west of Joslyn Road, at the border of Orion Township and Auburn Hills and knocked out the Oakland County 911 system, which was back online early Tuesday.

According to a statement from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, “the explosion and blast area encompasses roughly 30-40 yards around the crater. The blast exposed about 30 feet of the 22-inch natural gas line, creating a crater 18 feet deep.”

The sheriff’s aviation unit took aerial footage of the scene Tuesday at the request of Consumers Energy.

Business was back to normal, kind of, Tuesday morning at the Checkers burger drive-thru on Brown Road near the blast site. Food specials were advertised on signs outside the fast-food stand, and inside workers huddled behind owner Valerie Latshaw as she reviewed video footage from a store surveillance camera positioned toward the site of the fire.

The footage shows a dimly lit back lot suddenly awash with white light and then a blazing fire, soaring into the night sky.

“Looks like an atom bomb!” exclaimed one worker, as he hustled burgers into a bag for a customer.

Latshaw said she was at home more than three miles away about 10 p.m. when she received a call from one of her workers informing her they had heard an explosion and a building was on fire behind her business in a lot owned by Orion Stone.

“We have a storage shed and a pole barn and thought it might be one of them,” said Latshaw, who sped back to the restaurant. “The sky was lit up and it was pretty clear it wasn’t a shed fire.”

Latshaw was told to evacuate the business by utility workers, who said the explosion and fire left a scorched crater about 30 feet wide. A few trailers stored back on the property may have been damaged in the blaze, which burned for several hours.

Oakland County sheriff’s deputies and utility workers stationed vehicles across roads leading onto the property Tuesday morning, granting access only to investigators.

One nearby resident, Eric Schultz, who lives on Huston Street about one-quarter mile west of the site just north of Brown Road, said he never heard an explosion but his door blew open shortly before 10 p.m. Monday.

Schultz walked outside after his wife suggested if the wind was that strong, he should take the flag down in the front of the yard.

He didn’t have to, Schultz said. There was no strong wind or even a breeze, but he did notice a continuous sound “like a jet fighter plane flying over the house.”

Then he noticed fire rising about 70 feet over the tallest trees. “The light from the flames was so bright that it hurt your eyes,” Schultz said.

He first thought there might be a house or building fire, but the lots east of his home off Brown Road are mainly vacant or storage areas for a stone cutting business.

“There was no way it was a moving fire,” he said. “And I knew there was a gas main nearby; I’ve seen signs down a couple dead end roads near here. The way the flames would go up, burn bright and drop before going up again pretty much convinced me it was a gas fire.

“I have a sister in Clarkston, 10 miles away, that saw the light from the fire.”

At their pleading, Schultz let his children — ages 7, 11 and 13 — join him outside for a few minutes to watch how all the trees as far as anyone could see “had all turned an orange color” from the towering flames.

Schultz said about two hours after the explosion, deputies came by and told the family they should be prepared to evacuate their house but shortly after that “someone shut off the gas” and the flames dropped like a gas burner on a stove, he said.

“It was pretty strange,” he said, examining a snowblower part he set aside. “But things are back to normal and I don’t feel need for concern. I’m more interested in going hunting later this week.”