New Brunswick Pipeline Rupture Began Bad Streak Of Gas Infrastructure Explosions

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A pipeline that burst underneath the Raritan River on February 14 was just the first in a series of gas explosions that have rocked New Jersey and New York this year.

Thankfully, no one was hurt in the New Brunswick incident, though the smell of natural gas did descend upon Highland Park for much of the afternoon.

Since then, several incidents involving gas pipelines have illustrated the need for diligence in checking up on and being careful around gas infrastructure.

Among them were the destruction of two buildings in New York City, an explosion that killed a woman who worked at Johnson & Johnson inside her Ewing home, and an explosion inside a brand-new hospital built in Plainsboro.

PSEG closed the Raritan River gas pipeline two hours after the start of the leak, according to New Brunswick City Councilwoman Rebecca Escobar.

She also said that the pipeline rupture affected Highland Park more than it did New Brunswick.

"But they're closing that down," Escobar said, indicating PSE&G would no longer use the pipeline as a result of the incident.

This wasn't the first time the cross-river pipeline suffered a leak.

Last November, a kayaker filmed a much smaller leak, which was caused by a loose joint. PSE&G tightened and repaired the bolts on the joint, and it planned to replace the gas main in the spring.

The line was left in place because winter heating season was coming up.

In the second New Brunswick incident, the pipe fully separated from its joints in two different places, and PSE&G is trying to figure out what caused the separation, according to PSEG spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd.

PSE&G could not say whether February's separation had anything to do with November's loose joint.

PSEG put caps on the main on both sides of the river, effectively closing the pipeline.

Lloyd says that no customers were affected, but could not comment on the environmental impact of the leak.

The utility answers calls about leaks at any time of the day, and it constantly surveys its infrastructure for leaks, with a particular focus on cast iron mains, Lloyd said, noting that the cross-river pipeline that leaked was inspected regularly.

But recent explosions in Ewing, Plainsboro, and New York City show that the consequences of pipeline ruptures and other gas explosions can be much more severe.

The Ewing  explosion on March 4 also involved a PSEG pipeline, and claimed the life of a 66-year-old woman who worked for city-based Johnson & Johnson.

An electrical contractor had breached the pipeline and called PSE&G about the problem.

An hour later, when the utility was repairing the pipeline, the gas ignited and the house exploded.  The woman died in her home from the explosion, seven utility workers were hurt, ten rowhouses were destroyed, and 55 more damaged.

Eight days later, two vintage five-story tenement buildings in New York City were felled by another gas main explosion.  The blast shook the city's legendary Harlem neighborhood and authorities eventually discovered a leaking 125-year-old gas main nearby.

In Harlem, the explosion was sudden.  Debris flew out of windows that instantly shattered, people on the sidewalk were shoved and struggled to stay on their feet, and a pall of smoke and dust fell over the area.  Towering flames erupted immediately after the blast.

The Harlem explosion destroyed a church and a piano store, delayed numerous Metro-North trains that use the elevated tracks nearby, and killed eight people.

The disaster in Harlem was remiscent of the terrorist attacks on New York in September 2001, and the health effects were similar.

Neighbors complained of smoky odors and persistent coughs, and police on the scene were forced to don facemasks.

At Plainsboro's "University Medical Center of Princeton," a pipeline wasn’t even required for a gas explosion to occur.

The gas was oxygen, and it was in a tank in the new hospital's telemetry ward.

Telemetry is the measurement of the vital signs of people, especially those with serious acute diagnoses, such as diabetes or heart failure. Oxygen tanks are not unusual for a telemetry ward, but it can be highly flammable.

The hospital explosion on April 10 critically injured a nurse, Agnes Lawson, who was knocked to the ground unconscious, with several clothes and some skin on her face blown off.

The patient she was caring for, as well as a guest, had to be treated for smoke inhalation, and the ceiling tiles in the rooms fell down. The walls of the room were damaged, and a smoky haze greeted first responders who arrived on the scene.

Vito Porcaro, who was on the third floor visiting his mom at the time told the Princeton Packet, “I looked around the corner and saw a lot of people running around and a lot of smoke.”

Lawson was “on the floor” and “out cold” when Porcaro first saw her, but she woke up and started panicking and struggling, talking frantically.

Wayne Shen, also in the hospital when the explosion occurred, described it as a “very, very loud bang", which was "like…a gunshot". He had been visiting his wife and newborn son.

The hospital called for a State Police helicopter to airlift Lawson to St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, the state's only burn unit.

Eighteen patients on the third floor were moved to other floors of the hospital, and chaplains and counselors were called in to deal with any emotional hurt.

Andy Williams, hospital spokesman, said that the hospital was cooperating with the investigation of the blast.

A coworker of Lawson, Amber Stark, set up a get-well fund that called for $5,000 and raised more than three times its goal.

The Ewing incident is reminiscent of an infamous gas explosion and fire that occurred 20 years ago in Edison.

A large Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation natural gas pipeline exploded near the Durham Woods apartment complex, creating a fireball and mushroom cloud that could be seen in both New Brunswick and New York City.

In an instant, a spark ignited the gas, and the resulting fireball was enough to cause at least one airplane pilot to think Newark had been nuked.

Excavators had apparently cut into the outside of that pipeline some years before, and subsequent erosion eventually wore down the pipeline, eventually creating a breach.

The Durham Woods explosion took its toll on the Middlesex County community, damaging 14 different apartment buildings.

A woman who died of a heart attack was the only fatality, in part because of a large mound of earth protecting the apartments from the pipeline.

One hundred other folks were left without a home, and more than 1,500 had been evacuated.

Footage of the aftermath and evacuations of the Durham Woods incident is available on YouTube.