TVA campground evacuated amid fire

Homes also vacated after lightning strikes liquid oxygen pipe
Aug. 21, 2014 @ 06:18 PM

Alberta Trentham was looking out from from her camper at a TVA campground near Douglas Dam Wednesday when lightning struck a pipeline carrying liquid oxygen into the waters, causing a dangerous fire. It led to an evacuation that lasted several hours.

"It was just storming real bad, and all of a sudden this big bolt of lighting went down right on the other side of the dam," she said. "When it hit, there was immediately black smoke coming up."

At first Alberta and her husband, Henry, thought the lightning had struck a house on the other side of the dam, but after a few moments, they started noticing a strange smell. Then they noticed the flames billowing up on the other side.

"You could see that going all the way up that hill like that, just like something going up," she said.

They didn't immediately know there had been explosion. Like several other campers, they said there was a jarring impact and a boom, but at first they thought it was thunder from the severe storms that were rolling through the area.

The fire started at about 7:45 p.m., when lighting hit a pipeline that pumps liquid oxygen into the waters near the dam, TVA spokesman Travis Brickey said.

The flames didn't reach the storage tank, and a valve cut off any of the air that was running through the pipes, Brickey said.

"What burned was the residual oxygen that was in the lines," he said.

But once officials realized the pipes were affected, they evacuated a mile radius around the pipeline — an area that included the campgrounds as well as a number of homes.

The Trenthams stay regularly at the campground; it's their favorite place to camp with family and friends. When they started talking to some other campers, they decided to go over to the campground on the opposite side of the dam to see what was happening. They tried to return when they heard officials where evacuating the campgrounds, but weren't allowed to get back to the site.

They were worried about their pet dachshund, which they'd left at the camper, but a sheriff's deputy told them they couldn't go back into the campground, she said. A friend who hadn't left yet brought the dog to them later, she said.

"He said, 'I'm sorry, you can replace a dog you can't replace a life,'" she said. "He said you all have to leave and get out immediately."

The Trenthams hadn't heard that officials had set up a shelter at the nearby church; they stayed at Burger King on Winfield Dunn Parkway.

"They were just awesome because they realized it was an emergency," she said.

Another Seymour couple staying at the campground said they went home after the evacuation.

Joe and Phyllis Franklin were back sitting under the awning of their motor home Thursday.

They didn't see the lightning strike, but they heard the boom, and Joe said he thought it had hit something nearby when he hard it.

He didn't think more about it, though, until he saw sheriff's deputies and highway patrolmen coming into the campground with their emergency lights on.

The officer who came to their camper told them they needed to leave quickly.

"They were pushing us to get us out of here," Joe said.

The fire was extinguished in a few hours, and once officials determined there wasn't any further threat, they let people return to the area at about 10:30 p.m., Brickey said.

Sevier County Emergency Management Agency Director John Matthews said about 40 evacuees wound up staying at Kodak United Methodist Church, which was used as a shelter, and more people stayed at a second shelter in Jefferson County.

The liquid oxygen is used to improve oxygen levels in the waters around the dam, especially during the summer, when oxygen levels in the water naturally decrease due to the heat, Brickey said.

It isn't clear how long it will take to repair the pipes, and in the meantime TVA has opened a spillway to help raise oxygen leaks.

"We'll be doing that until the oxygen system is repaired," he said.