Report Finds Tractor Front-Loader Caused Fatal California Blast

By SCOTT SMITH | July 9, 2015

The front loader of a tractor punctured a gas line that exploded in Central California earlier this year, killing one jail inmate, sending several people to a hospital and halting traffic in both directions on a major highway, state officials said Monday.

Gouges and scrapes by the tractor’s bucket caused the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas line to erupt April 17 at a gun range used by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, the California Public Utilities Commission said in its report.

The tractor was being operated by a Fresno County worker, officials have said.

Investigators hired by the state found no evidence that the pipe had ever been struck by a bullet. The damage to the pipeline could have only been caused by contact with the front-loader bucket, the report said.

Among the 11 people injured were eight jail inmates working nearby and the county worker driving the tractor.

Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie declined to comment, saying in an emailed message his office has not yet received a copy of the report.

Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the public utilities commission, said the findings will be used in the state’s investigation to determine whether PG&E violated any applicable laws or regulations.

PG&E continues to work with the state in the ongoing investigation, said Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesman.

Exponent Failure Analysis Associates did the report.

The tractor was being used at the gun range for maintenance on a berm where the gas line was buried nearly four feet in some places, the report says, adding that substantial amounts of soil had been removed to create a dirt road. The jail inmates were working nearby doing cleanup work.

The blast temporarily closed nearby Highway 99 in both directions.

Jail inmate Jeremiah Espino, 52, who was among workers near the explosion, died a month later. All of the other injured inmates have been released from the hospital, said sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti.

The county employee driving the tractor also has been released from the hospital, said Mary Lisa Russell, a spokeswoman for Fresno Community Regional Medical Center.

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.