July Fourth 2010 will long be remembered by many emergency responders in McDuffie County.
The reason: A propane pipeline explosion killed 23-year-old Jason McCorkle. The explosion occurred near Belle Meade subdivision outside of Thomson. Earlier that morning, Mr. McCorkle's father, Paul McCorkle, a county commissioner, was operating a bulldozer and accidentally ruptured the pipeline while doing road work on McCorkle Farm on Stagecoach Road.
A large number of firefighters, emergency medical personnel and law enforcement officers met with representatives of Dixie Pipeline Company at the Thomson Depot last Wednesday. They discussed the overall response, how it was handled and whether anything could be improved if a similar accident were to ever take place here again.
Mr. McCorkle attended the meeting representing the McDuffie County Board of Commissioners.
The single biggest issue discussed involved making sure that before anyone digs that they call the Georgia 811 number.
"It's the law," said Michael McLaughlin, coordinator and public awareness/damage prevention representative with EPCO, Inc.
During the course of the investigation by authorities, including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, it was learned that Paul McCorkle had not called that telephone number.
"We're here to get your feedback," said Jesse Gregoire, manager of regional safety for Dixie Pipeline Company. "I want this to be an interactive meeting. We want to see if there is anything we can do differently, if another accident happens around here."
He pointed out that it was an opportunity for company representatives to come and share with local authorities what they learned.
During an interview with The McDuffie Mirror , Mr. Gregoire said he and many other company officials needed such feedback from those involved in the local emergency because that's how the company measures its overall safety performance. "We take safety very seriously," added Mr. Gregoire, who also took time out to thank those who attended the meeting, as well as for their service in the midst of the emergency.
Another person bestowing thanks to local and state firefighters, emergency medical personnel and law enforcement officers was McDuffie County Fire/Rescue Services Chief Bruce Tanner.
"I really do appreciate y'all's response and assistance," said Chief Tanner.
The county fire chief applauded neighboring fire departments that rendered their assistance with manpower and equipment during the tragedy.
He praised the following fire departments: Thomson Fire Rescue, Warren County Fire/Rescue Services, as well as fire departments in Wrens, Stapleton and Columbia-Martinez Fire/Rescue.
The City of Thomson Gas Department, which is headed by Chuck Cason, also was praised for their outstanding contribution. Local businessman Scott Williams, owner of Williams Sewer and Drain, also were thanked publicly by Dixie Pipeline Company officials.
"Everyone was very cooperative," said Chief Tanner, noting there were some communications problems. "That's something we haven't made a lot of improvement on in about 10 years. That's still a shortfall."
Chief Tanner said the first three to four hours after the mishap was more critical than any other.
McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall said his department did a radio swap with pipeline officials on the scene for better communications.
"It went better than I expected, but it could have been better," said Sheriff Marshall, who immediately put together a security team. That team was headed by Deputy Sgt. Mike Hobbs.
Thomson Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Johnny Crawley suggested that vehicles could have been staged better. He, like Chief Tanner and Sheriff Marshall, said communications could have been better, too.
Major Ronnie Williamson said he thought local media representatives did a good job of keeping the public informed about the emergency situation.
He explained that the Reverse 911 System could have helped out greatly in keeping people better informed about what was actually happening in the area where the ruptured pipeline occurred.
Maj. Williamson said 911 dispatchers were bombarded with phone calls.
"Our dispatchers were receiving 30 to 40 calls a minute," he said.
Nikki Thigpen, public information officer with the Warren County Fire/Rescue Services, echoed those sentiments.
"The Reverse 911 System has been a big help when it's been used in Warren County," said Ms. Thigpen.
Deputy Chief Crawley also inquired about what kind of repairs were made to the pipeline.
Crews with the pipeline company began working immediately after they arrived on the scene. They replaced a section approximately 60 feet long, said Chris Robertson, manager and field engineering for Dixie Pipeline Company.
The line was back and up and running normally five days later, said Mark Burkhalter, who serves as eastern area manager for the pipeline company.
Deputy Chief Crawley also praised company officials for the way they handled getting out information to the public that made them feel safe.
"I'd like to commend you," said Chief Deputy Crawley. "I think you handled that very well."