Natural Gas Escaping Salt Cavern Blows Kansas Town Apart

HUTCHISON, Kansas, January 18, 2001 (ENS) - Natural gas and salt both lie beneath the town of Hutchison, a combination that proved explosive Wednesday and again today.

An explosion in downtown Hutchinson destroyed two businesses and damaged 26 others Wednesday. Then today, another explosion at a trailer park left two people critically injured when their trailer suddenly blew up, said Hutchison Police Officer Darrin Truan.

After checking all the town's gas lines, officials now believe unrefined natural gas that had collected in underground salt caverns escaped, for reasons yet unknown, with explosive consequences.

The blasts shook stone and brick buildings, blew out windows and doors and threw shoppers into the streets. Police evacuated a ten block area of the town of 40,000 inhabitants, and the Reno County Law Enforcement Center and Courthouse was without power Wednesday.

Everybody is in a state of shock, an eyewitness said.


Kansas Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer (Photo courtesy Office of the Lt. Governor)
Kansas Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer arrived in Hutchinson today to view the damage. He signed an order declaring the town a disaster area, a move which releases public funds for emergency assistance.

The explosions are not confined to a single area of the city. There are several places where natural gas is escaping from the ground, Truan said. Investigators from state and local agencies are working to determine the cause of the gas leaks. Professionals have been called in to try to cap the sources of the gas.

Police Chief Dick Heitschmidt said city officials, using historical documents from the Reno County Museum, have traced one of the sources of gas to a leaking Kansas Gas Company gas-storage salt cavern. But there may be more gas sources, officials believe.

City public works employees have been been pressed into overtime service boarding up the downtown stores, setting up barricades, and keeping debris from the explosions cleaned up.

Mary Wolff of the Water and Sewer Department says there has been no disruption of water or sewer lines. "The water towers are holding well even with all the water being taken out by fire crews," she said.

The city of Hutchinson is located in the south central pan of the state of Kansas about 45 miles northwest of Wichita near the Arkansas River.

The town was built over salt caverns. Foods giant Cargill operates a salt mine in Hutchison, and three salt processing plants are based in Hutchinson, one of them a division of Morton Salt.