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October 21, 2009

NM responders detail horrific gas explosion scene in lawsuit

By Scott Sandlin
The Albuquerque Journal

ROSWELL, N.M. — One of the first responders to the scene of a pipeline explosion near the Pecos River nine years ago described for jurors what he found that night — in detail so vivid some spectators had to leave the courtroom.

Michael D. Shannon, Carlsbad assistant fire chief at the time, described flesh falling off hands, faces missing features, three dead children, a charred skeleton "looking up at me."

He told jurors he saw people alive but critically burned, some of whom he knew through his 19 years of work at the fire department.

"They were dead people," he said, choking on his words.

Shannon was the first witness in a trial for a lawsuit filed in 2003 by 26 firefighters and emergency medical technicians who responded to a fire so intense that at first, they couldn't reach the spot by the river where it was burning.

They didn't realize there were human victims until seeing charred vehicles and hearing their cries.

The firefighters are claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress by El Paso — in essence, that the company's actions were so far beyond negligent in maintaining the pipeline as to be intentional.

El Paso denies recklessness and says the explosion was a terrible accident that occurred despite the company's considerable regulation by federal and state authorities.

"It's the worst day in the El Paso Natural Gas Co. family," company attorney Jeff Ray told the jury.

The trial was delayed because of appeals filed after the case was dismissed in 2004 by the previous trial judge, who found that the "firefighter's rule" precluded the first responders from bringing the legal action.

He was overruled by the New Mexico Court of Appeals in 2006 and the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2007, which sent the case back to the district court for trial.

Attorneys picked a jury of 12 plus three alternates on Monday, and opening statements and testimony began Tuesday before District Judge Freddie J. Romero in Roswell in a courtroom packed with firefighters and their families.

Dick Blenden, a Carlsbad attorney for the plaintiffs, told jurors in his opening statement that for 50 years El Paso Natural Gas Co. didn't do "one single thing" to the section of high-pressure gas pipeline that ruptured in a giant fireball.

The explosion lasted for 24 seconds before a second explosion occurred — all of it measured by seismographs more than 100 miles away in Socorro.

The cause of the rupture, Blenden told the jury, was that water had collected in the section of the line that dipped down toward the river. It could have been cleaned, but not by the traditional "pigging" method of sending a brushlike cleaner through the line, he said. Instead, it could have been tested using other methods, including X-ray.

In the plaintiffs' theory of the case, El Paso had dramatically cut its maintenance budget nationwide, turning its back on safety in what he characterized as "reckless" and "intentional" ways.

Jurors will be asked to decide if the emotional distress the firefighters experienced was any worse than what they're trained to do and expect to do routinely.

Blenden said it would take $4.7 million to get the therapy the plaintiffs need for the trauma they experienced. But he also said plaintiffs will ask for punitive damages at the end of the trial as a deterrent against conduct like El Paso's in the future.

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