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Fiery explosion in south Minneapolis; no injuries

Fiery explosion in south Minneapolis; no injuries
Police officers close off the area near the site of a natural gas line explosion Thursday in south Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A natural gas line exploded in south Minneapolis on Thursday, sending flames shooting high into the sky, scorching nearby vehicles and forcing authorities to close a busy freeway until officials could inspect it for damage.

Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn told reporters the gas has been shut off, and that there are no known injuries. The blast left a large hole in the road. The flames died after authorities shut off the gas line a little more than an hour after the explosion.

Gas levels in the air had reached 80 parts per million but are back down to zero, Penn said, adding that people were still being evacuated from the area as a precaution.

"I think the situation is as under control as it can be," Mayor R.T. Rybak told reporters.

The blast happened around 8:45 a.m. on the street in front of a Cub Foods supermarket, in a residential and industrial area near the interchange of Interstate 35W and Highway 62. Penn said there was a secondary explosion shortly after the first. Cars in the parking lot were scorched in the blast.

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A major trunk gas line for that section of Minneapolis exploded, and state pipeline safety officials are on the scene, according to Rebecca Virden, a spokeswoman for CenterPoint Energy.

Witness Len Slade said he was at the Cub Foods before the explosion and saw a black liquid spewing from the ground. It wasn't immediately clear what that liquid was.

"It looked like when you see an oil well bubble up out of the ground, like when they strike oil," he said.

Slade said he was in the doorway of the store, across the sprawling parking lot from the fire, when something ignited with a poof. He said the heat was so intense that he had to retreat into the building.

"You could feel the heat coming through the front door," he said.

Slade, a vice president with Jerry's Enterprises, which operates the store, said employees were evacuated soon after.

Police Sgt. Frank Eolering said at least one manhole cover blew off near the explosion.

An apartment complex, day care and church near the scene were evacuated, and people inside the grocery store were told to leave through the back. A K-8 school was evacuated and students were sent to another school, one of three Minneapolis public schools that were put on lockdown. School officials planned to keep students indoors for the rest of the day.

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Concerns that the extreme heat may have damaged a nearby overpass on the Interstate 35W forced the Minnesota Department of Transportation to temporarily close the highway in both directions, agency spokesman Todd Kramascz said. The northbound lanes were reopened just before 11am, but the southbound lanes, which are closer to the blast site, remained closed while officials checked for damage. Scorch marks were clearly visible on the road.

"We just want to make sure there is no structural damage," Kramascz said.

Highway 62, from Portland Avenue to Xerxes Avenue, was briefly closed to traffic.

On Sept. 9, a natural gas explosion in San Bruno, Calif., sparked a massive fireball that killed eight people and destroyed three dozen homes in the suburb overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

The investigation and recriminations continue. Earlier this week, California regulators said they planned to fine Pacific Gas & Electric Co. up to $1 million a day for failing to turn over key safety records.

PG&E spokesman Joe Molica has said the company is not yet satisfied with the results of its records search.

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