Up to 15 people injured in California gas pipeline explosion

SACRAMENTO, California (REUTERS) - A construction crew accidentally ruptured a natural gas transmission line on Friday in Fresno, California, sparking an explosion and fire that injured up to 15 people, three of them critically, officials said.

The 30-cm pipeline, belonging to Pacific Gas and Electric Corp, was struck by a backhoe near state Highway 99, unleashing a fireball that injured members of the construction team and a prison inmate crew in the vicinity, Fresno Fire Department spokesman Peter Martinez said.

The accident prompted closure of the highway in both directions, along with an adjacent railroad line, Martinez said. Rail traffic was halted to allow a bridge that carries the tracks over a river to be inspected for possible damage, he said.

One worker was flown by helicopter to a hospital in critical condition, and 13 or 14 other people were taken to hospitals for evaluation and treatment of various injuries, according to Martinez.

Four of the injured were taken to Community Regional Medical Centre in Fresno, hospital spokesman Mary Lisa Russell said. Three were in critical condition and one in serious condition with burns, she said.

The Fresno Bee, citing Fresno County Administrative Officer John Navarrette, said a county public works equipment operator struck the natural gas line.

The employee, who was badly burned, was the patient airlifted to Community Regional Medical Centre, the Bee reported, citing Navarrette. Among the injured were prison inmates on a work detail, the newspaper reported, citing Sheriff Margaret Mims.

The accident occurred in Fresno County at a shooting range used by law enforcement, the Fresno County Sheriff's Department told the newspaper. Fresno is about 300 km southeast of San Francisco.

The California Public Utilities Commission sent a team to Fresno to investigate the explosion, spokesman Terrie Prosper said. "The CPUC will conduct a full investigation of the explosion and has already coordinated with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration," Prosper said.

A PG&E representative said the utility was also investigating.