Gap Creek residents evacuated after accident causes propane leak

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   An Elizabethton woman was listed in fair condition last night following a one-vehicle accident Monday afternoon on Gap Creek Road.
   According to Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Edward Tester, a 2002 gold Chrysler Sebring, driven by Sharon A. Fox, U.S. Highway 19E, was traveling east on Gap Creek Road when the driver lost control.
   The vehicle traveled approximately 370 feet before it left the roadway and went airborne, clipping the rear of a South Elizabethton Utility District substation building and traveling across the top of a 1,000 gallon propane tank before landing in a wooded area facing the highway.
   The impact tore the valve off the top of the tank, causing a leak of propane gas and forcing evacuation of nearby residents.
   Fox was extricated from the vehicle by members of Carter County Rescue Squad and transported to Johnson City Medical Center, according to Trooper Tester.
   "According to EMS she was shook up pretty bad," Tester said. Speed was believed to be a factor in the accident.
   The 2002 Chrysler was a rental car from Enterprise Rental out of Franklin, Tenn., Tester said.
   Nearby resident Jay Sams said, "I was up there in the house and heard the crunching." Sams then went to Jim's Meat Market, about 500 feet from his house.
   "He came down to my market and got a drink and he said, 'There's been a wreck somewhere,' owner Jim Pitman said. "I said, 'Well, I didn't hear nothing. Jump in the car and we'll go see.' And sure enough there was."
   The market is located about 1,000 feet from the crash scene.
   Pitman said the driver took down mailboxes on the opposite side of the road from the substation before leaving the roadway.
   Mike Cole of Heritage Propane rushed to the scene and shut off the gas to prevent an explosion. Cole said Fox "went airborne over the top of the tank and knocked everything off the top of it." Tire tracks were visible on top of the tank.
   Earl Birchfield of the utility district surveyed damage to the cinder block building. "I'll have to have somebody come out and inspect the building. The biggest part of it will probably have to come down. That back wall has shifted about 2 inches.
   "This is just a pump station for the water distribution system," Birchfield said. The substation provides water to 2,200 families in the areas of Gap Creek and Powder Branch.
   John Burleson of the rescue squad said one of the dangers of propane is that it is heavier than air and settles near the ground.
   "We evacuated a quarter-mile upwind and a half-mile downwind to try to eliminate the flashback potential," Burleson said.
   Cole said the tank is used to power a generator for electricity to the substation in times of emergency.
   "Everything's back up and running good," Birchfield said Monday night. "There's just a lot of damage."
   Hampton and West Carter Volunteer Fire Departments responded while Carter County Sheriff's Department officers set up roadblocks to turn traffic away from the evacuation scene.
   Trooper Tester said charges are pending.