At least 15 people were injured in a gas-line explosion near California Highway 99 on Friday afternoon after a work crew at the Fresno County Sheriff's gun range apparently hit a major natural gas pipe, reported the Associated Press. The explosion subsequently shut down both the northbound and southbound lanes of traffic near Fresno, causing major backups and delays. By 3:30 p.m. local time (6:30 p.m. ET), authorities had reopened the southbound lanes, but northbound lanes remained closed.
One of the workers on the gun range crew, which included several inmates, was critically injured in the explosion, a spokesperson for the Fresno County Sheriff's Office told NBC affiliate KCRA News. No firearms were involved in the incident, and no law enforcement officers were injured, he said.
Fresno Fire Department spokesman Pete Martinez told the news affiliate that witnesses nearby reported seeing a "large fireball" as the PG&E pipeline exploded, sending thick plumes of smoke skyward.
Eleven of the 15 injured during the explosion were taken directly to nearby medical centers for treatment. Community Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Mary Lisa Russell told the AP that four of the patients were being treated at the hospital's burn and trauma center, and three critical condition patients were under the center's care as well. One patient in serious condition was being treated for related injuries, she said.
Seven other patients were rushed to St. Agnes Hospital and Madera Community Hospital, said Fresno County Medical Services director Dan Lynch in a statement. Russell told Bustle on Friday evening that while most burn patients remain under center care for long periods of time — sometimes up to nine months — recovery time for the three critical patients and one serious patient would depend largely on each victim's individual health. Russell said that all four were currently receiving burn treatment and that no other updates were available at the time.
Local fire crews on the scene were able to put out the flames quickly, reported KCRA, and PG&E officials were already investigating the incident by late Friday afternoon. At the time of the explosion, a nearby rail line was also temporarily closed out of concern that sparks from the rails might spark another explosion due to potential gas leaks down the line. Traffic was re-routed and California Highway Patrol officials asked drivers to alter their routes home for the evening to avoid further backup.
California Highway 99 is one of the region's busier four-lane routes and was prominently featured in the 1939 John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath. It winds from Sacramento to Los Angeles and is sometimes referred to as the Golden State Highway.
The explosion occurred just after 2:30 p.m. PT. By Friday evening, authorities were unsure of when the northbound highway lanes would re-open.