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Updated: Slow Burn

By Bart Moss for the FCT

Three men were drilling for water when their equipment hit a natural gas pocket, causing an explosion Friday.

The drilling, through Gentry Drilling Company, was taking place at a group of new chicken houses on Highway 724 near the Newburg community in Franklin County.  According to authorities on the scene, while the men were working, they heard a rush of air, and an almost instant ignition set fire to the three men. All suffered burns to their faces and hands and were flown to the University of Alabama Birmingham burn unit, where they are being treated for second degree burns. None of the injuries were life-threatening, and all are expected to be released from the hospital soon.

Authorities evacuated the area of Highway 724 from Highway 83 to Highway 75.  The road could be closed for some time pending the fire burning out, which could take more than a week.

According to Russellville Fire Department Chief Joe Mansell,  numerous fire departments responded to the scene, including Tharptown Volunteer Fire Department, East Franklin VFD and the RFD, as well as others. State authorities also responded, as well as Franklin County EMA and surrounding EMAs.

Mansell said, counterintuitively, that the situation is under control as long as the fire continues to burn. When it extinguishes, however, Tharptown Volunteer Fire Department in  conjunction with experts on natural gas pockets, will have to determine how it was extinguished and what steps need to be taken to ensure it does not re-ignite.  If gas is continuing to escape through the surface, it could find a new ignition source and and once again flame up.

Mansell added that, according to experts, the explosion was incredibly rare. Although the drillers had drilled only a few hundred feet, they contacted a pocket of gas so large it should be at least a few thousand feet down, not nearly so close to the surface.

EMA Director Jody Hitt, TVFD Chief Doug Coan and TVFD firefighters are keeping an eye on the fire round-the-clock, and it is under control.

Local authorities are coordinating with experts to determine further details on this explosion.