Pipeline explosion injures commissioner, kills son

A McDuffie County commissioner was injured and his son killed when the bulldozer they were driving ruptured a propane gas line. This photo of the resulting flames was sent to News 12 by an anonymous viewer. (July 5, 2010)
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News 12 at 11 o'clock, July 5, 2010

THOMSON, Ga. --- McDuffie County commissioner Paul McCorkle is recovering after a pipeline explosion sent him to the hospital and killed his son, Jason.

It started with an earth-shaking blast and a smoke cloud visible from miles away.

McCorkle and his son Jason were using a bulldozer to do some work around their property this morning. Their bulldozer ruptured a propane pipeline buried in their work area at around 11 o'clock. A few seconds after the propane began to escape, a spark ignited the gas and caused the explosion.

The fire burned throughout the day, and McDuffie County Fire Chief Bruce Tanner said it would likely continue into Tuesday evening. He says the fire is under control, but cannot be extinguished because it’s necessary to burn off the rest of the propane gas.

The pipeline was shut off immediately following the blast, but there is still enough propane already in the pipe to fuel the fire for more than 24 hours.

“It looked like a bomb went off,” said Matt Williams, who saw the initial fire. “I mean, all the trees were burned up. It’s awful. It’s terrible.”

For Williams, it was the unmistakable sound of burning gas that got his attention, interrupting his Waffle House breakfast and sending him toward the direction of the blast to find out what happened.

“I heard something that sounded like bottle rockets going off,” he said. “And I turned around to see who was shooting off bottle rockets, and when I did, that’s when I saw the big mushroom cloud go up in the sky.”

Bill Hopkins came home from work after neighbors called with the news.

“Driving down the highway at 10 miles away, I could see the smoke,” Hopkins said. He lives along the pipeline. “It was scary at that point.”

Neighbors say the explosion was so loud it shook their homes. Some feared an airplane had crashed at the nearby airport.

The blast destroyed two mobile homes and burned eight acres of land. Jason McCorkle did not survive.

“It could have happened to anybody,” said Lenny Hobbs, a friend of the McCorkles. “It could have happened to somebody who's been working around pipeline all their life.”

Lenny Hobbs is one of those people; he’s spent years working around gas pipelines and has even survived a similar accident himself.

“I heard what happened and knew what it was,” Hobbs said. “It was a freak accident.”

Hours after the explosion, neighbors gathered to watch the flames. They had died down significantly, but the fire was still going strong. Firefighters said they had it contained, but crews would remain on the scene until Tuesday afternoon (July 6) to put out any brush fires.

“You don't want to put one of these kinds of fires out. The best thing right now is to let that fire burn,” Chief Tanner explained. “You have to burn off the residual gas that's in the pipe, and once that gas is gone, the fire will put itself out.”

But even after the flames are out, the explosion will have left its mark.

“You're not expecting anything like that in a small town like Thomson,” Williams said. "You know, a gas line ruptures and someone passes away. You hear about stuff like that in big cities, but not around here, especially in rural country like this.”

The pipeline is operated by Dixie Pipeline Company. The company has issued a statement saying they are investigating, and News 12 is told they will have crews on the scene all week. News 12’s calls to the public relations representative were not immediately returned, though we are told he was en route to Thomson.

Paul McCorkle was released from the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital this evening.


A McDuffie County commissioner was injured and his son killed when the bulldozer they were driving ruptured a propane gas line. This photo of the resulting flames was sent to News 12 by an anonymous viewer. (July 5, 2010)