The night a gas line rupture wreaked havoc in a small Mississippi town

Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 6:51 PM CDT
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SATARTIA, Miss. (WLBT) - Imagine driving home from work or sitting and relaxing in your backyard with family or simply taking an evening stroll and, suddenly, you feel lightheaded, dizzy, and eventually collapse... sounds like a movie?

Residents of the small town of Satartia in Yazoo County say this is exactly what happened to them - and it is a nightmare they are still living every day.

“I thought we were going to die,” said Linda Garrett.

It was February 2020, around 7 o’clock Saturday night in Satartia. Yazoo County EMA Director Jack Willingham and Volunteer Fire Chief Durward Pettis were driving home when they got an alarming and strange alert on their phones.

“It was a report of a green cloud,” explained Pettis.

Jack Willingham said, “I heard dispatch say there was a foul odor, like rotten eggs and green gas.”

“It had choked out a car and the car had stopped, and the woman had fainted,” added Pettis.

Neighbors Linda Garrett and Michelle Douglas and her husband were home at the time.

“I heard three explosions,” Linda said. “It was like a boom, boom, then a small boom.”

“The closer I got to it I couldn’t breathe,” said Douglas. “I said, I got to get back in the house because something is wrong. So I got to the porch and fell out.”

Garrett said, “I was getting more delirious from the smell, and my daughter was screaming, and grandbaby was on the floor.”

Meanwhile, as first responders were trying to figure out what was making people sick, they decided to shut down roads and isolate the area.

It was a chaotic night.

Yazoo County Deputy Chief Simon Stubblefield started going door-to-door to quickly get residents out of the danger zone.

“Without the air packs the volunteer fire departments provided, breathing was impossible,” he said.

Fire Chief Pettis and his team finally figured out it was a Co2 pipeline that ruptured, which runs through Satartia And other parts of the state.

Co2 is in the air that we breathe every day, but high concentrations of it in a confined space can be toxic.

“If you stay in it long enough, it can damage your lungs and other internal organs because you are depleting your body of oxygen in the Co2, so it’s no joke,” Pettis said. “It is something to be concerned about.”

Denbury Inc. owns and operates the Co2 pipeline, which is used to unlock oil from oil fields.

“Apparently the ground had shifted which caused stress on the well right here and caused the pipe to rupture,” said Willingham. “It freezes the ground and it’s cold.”

More than 4 dozen people ended up in the hospital from the small town and the surrounding area.

“It was a really heavy feeling on your chest,” said Willingham. “Your lungs were squeezing.”

Garrett said, “I said, We are not going to make it. Those are the last words I said to 911.

“Most of the community is elderly and they go to bed pretty early,” said Douglas. “If they would have been in bed where they couldn’t get them out, they said everyone would have been dead.”

Linda Garrett and her neighbors in Satartia say thankfully no one died, but it doesn’t take away from the severity and lack of communication that night when gas saturated her town.

“No warning, no warning,” Garrett said.

According to an investigative report from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Denbury never notified local emergency responders advising them of the potential failure. Instead, it was the other way around.

Local responders had to figured out what was in the air making residents sick and then they reached out to the company.

Willingham said, “They knew at 7:07 that we had a problem. We had started isolating the area before then, but we didn’t know what we were dealing with, so you see why that’s a big problem. When we called them and the guy said, ‘Oh yes, we had a pressure drop on such and such line.’ You think they would have called and said, ‘We had a pressure drop on this line. You may have a problem.’”

Two years later, those who live and work in the Yazoo County town say the effects of that dangerous pipeline failure still linger mentally and physically among residents.

Douglas said, “Like my husband, he is taking three different migraine medications but he still has a headache every day. Myself, it affected me as being tired, I cannot get any energy to get up and go and I was not that way before the explosion.”

So what’s changed since the pipeline failure?

PHMSA announced new safety measures to protect Americans from carbon dioxide pipeline failures after the Satartia leak.

Willingham said, “Since we had this incident, the leak, our team has worked with federal investigators to make sure our citizens are safe. I want our citizens to be safe. This is a small community, but every community should be safe.”

Chief Durward Pettis said, “We have been doing training with Denbury and drills. They purchased these gas monitors in the field. This is a five-gas monitor system. We have used them several times down in the Satartia area because they thought they smelled that odor in the area and they were worried.”

Denbury also funded an emergency communication system, which communicates and notifies residents of any emergency situation that happens in Yazoo County.

Willingham said, “We can put in a message, and it will send a call, a text or phone call immediately.”

But many Satartia residents are wondering just how effective this system will be in a the time of trouble due to little to no broadband service in the rural area.

Douglas said, “We should still get the same things that a larger town would get.”

Sally Doty is over that new program. She says her team is committed to helping the small town.

“So, over the next few years, there is federal money that is designated for unserved areas,” she said, “and I believe Satartia is an unserved area. The people of Satartia are not forgotten about nor are the other unserved areas and underserved areas of the state.”

Even with all the gadgets, warning systems and training, some residents admit what happened on February 22, 2020, is a pain they will live with for the rest of their lives.

Garrett said, “When I hear something, I think it is a gas line. That is the only thing we have had a problem with.”

Douglas added, “It is scary. Everyone is on pens and needles because what if this happened again? Like, they said this has never happened anywhere else in the U.S.”

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