HOUSTON — Roiling floodwaters apparently ruptured a 40-inch pipeline Thursday, sending pools of burning gasoline down the rain-swollen San Jacinto River and setting fire to homes and boats on the banks.
At least 59 people were treated for minor burns and smoke inhalation. Much of the area had already been evacuated because of days of flooding that have claimed at least 15 lives.
"It looked like hell opened up on the water and the whole river was gasoline," said Mike Norman, who was on the bank trying to retrieve his sailboat when the explosion occurred.
About 11,500 people had been forced from their homes by heavy rain that began Sunday. Skies were clearing, the murky water had begun to recede in most areas and some people were returning to their damaged homes when the pipeline broke east of Houston, sending smoke and flame hundreds of feet into the air.
Several houses, mobile homes and boats on the banks were set ablaze. Schools and businesses in the path of the smoke were ordered evacuated. The number of people affected was not immediately known.
"At this point, we believe the force of the floodwaters caused the pipeline to break," said Ed Schaefer, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
The explosion occurred near "The Spaghetti Bowl," the mouth of the nation's interstate pipeline network. The broken line, owned by Colonial Pipeline, carries gasoline from nearby Pasadena to New Jersey.
The Coast Guard was investigating a possible rupture of a second line nearby. The substance believed leaking from that pipe was not immediately known.
Emergency crews had trouble putting out the fire because their boats could not handle the swirling river currents and fire trucks were blocked by flooded roads, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Eric Nicholas.
Valves on either side of the 2-mile section of pipeline were shut off, but gasoline is likely to continue spilling into the river, said George Tenley, associate administrator of pipeline safety for the U.S. Transportation Department.
More than 400,000 gallons of gasoline spilled before the shut-off, Tenley said, and the 2-mile section can hold hundreds of thousands of gallons.