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"It looked like hell opened up'

A pipeline ruptured under the flooded San Jacinto River on Thursday, sending flames 100 feet into the air and igniting boats and homes on the river bank.

"It looked like hell opened up on the water and the whole river was gasoline," said Mike Norman, who was on the bank trying to retrieve his sailboat when the pipeline exploded.

At least 69 people were injured.

The pipeline is large enough to carry one-sixth of the nation's gasoline supply. An adjacent one that carries diesel fuel and heating oil broke open soon afterward.

Both pipelines are the main route for oil products coming from the refineries of the Houston area to the Northeast.

Some 11,500 people were forced from their homes by heavy rain that began Sunday. Skies were clearing, the murky water had begun to recede in most areas, and some people were returning to their damaged homes when the pipeline broke east of Houston.

The flooding has claimed at least 15 lives.

The burning mixture snaked 1{ miles downstream, setting fire to homes and boats along the banks. Schools and businesses in the path of the smoke were evacuated. Most of the injured were treated for minor burns and smoke inhalation.

"There were three loud booms and then an immediate black cloud," witness Doug Trowbridge said. "It just began to spread like wildfire."

The first explosion, around 10:30 a.m. occurred near "The Spaghetti Bowl," the mouth of the nation's interstate pipeline network. A second pipeline ruptured around 2 p.m.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena surveyed the scene by helicopter and said the explosion was likely caused by the rain-swollen river.

"We have seen this in other parts of the country where you have massive flooding and pipes are hit, tanks get loose and you have ruptures and you have explosions," Pena said, adding that an investigation was planned.

The two pipelines, about 8 feet apart, are buried about 3 feet beneath the floor of the river, said Sam Whitehead, spokesman for Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline, which owns both lines. They run beneath the river for about 2 miles.

The first line, 40 inches in diameter, carries gasoline from nearby Pasadena to New Jersey. The second line, 36 inches in diameter, carries diesel fuel, Whitehead said.

Whitehead said the company doesn't know what caused the ruptures or how many gallons of fuel spilled.

"This was a very serious flooding situation. That's the only thing that we know that is unusual," Whitehead said.

The ruptures caused gasoline future prices to rise in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Wholesale unleaded gasoline for November delivery rose 1.95 cents to 49.95 cents a gallon, a seven-week high.

Emergency crews had trouble putting out the fire because their boats could not handle the swirling river currents and fire trucks were blocked by flooded roads, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Eric Nicholas.

Most of the fire was out by 6:30 p.m.

Company officials said they shut off valves on either side of the 40-inch pipeline at 8:30 a.m. after noticing a drop in pipeline pressure. There are 10 miles between shut offs on the larger line, and 32 miles between shut off points on the 36-inch line.

The river is about 8 feet above flood stage, and experts said it was possible that the strong currents had washed away the dirt above and below the pipelines, leading them to break under their own weight, but that it would be impossible to tell until the river subsided. It was also possible that something hit the pipelines.

George Tenley, associate administrator of pipeline safety for the U.S. Transportation Department, said it wasn't known how much gasoline leaked into the river. The section can hold hundreds of thousands of gallons, he said.

Tenley said operators of 11 other pipelines in the area were asked to shut down their lines for fear that the fire might spread.

Flames reached at least one barge, burning foam insulation used to seal the compartments from water and emitting cyanide smoke, Nicholas said. Cyanide is a foam insulation ingredient, and the smoke is not dangerous unless people are close to it, he said.

East and southwest of the city, the water was still rising from the storms' runoff. About 4,000 residents evacuated Liberty, about 30 miles east of Houston, as the Trinity River crested at 30{ feet, 6{ feet above flood stage.

U.S. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros toured Liberty by airboat and called the situation there "very, very bad."

"It is like a ghost town downtown," he said.

Liberty County Judge Dempsie Henley estimated that 4,000 Liberty County residents were forced from their homes Thursday morning as levees broke, forcing evacuation of a nursing home and flooding an elementary school, already closed due to the high water.

"There's just an enormous, enormous flood," Henley said. "We're seeing what we've never seen before. We're definitely in an emergency situation right now.

"The Trinity River bottom is a beautiful place, but when it gets on a rampage, man, it is a terror."

Spencer Karr, emergency management coordinator for the Trinity River Authority, said distraught residents in Liberty want to know why his agency gave no advance warning about floodwaters approaching from Lake Livingston upriver.

People in Liberty said they were given two weeks to prepare for floods that raged down the Trinity from North Texas in 1990.

"The answer is this flood originated right there on top of the lake in the form of rainfall," Karr said. "This reservoir received 28.9 percent of its average annual rainfall in a two-day period. Rainfall amounts (totaling) up to 18.35 inches occurred. Obviously, when that happens, we had absolutely no warning."

Just to the east of Liberty County, an estimated 1,500 homes in Jefferson and Hardin counties had to be evacuated when Pine Island Bayou and its tributaries began to flood Wednesday and Thursday.

Elsewhere, relief authorities switched their emphasis from shelters to disaster assistance. The first six federal disaster relief centers open Friday.

Twenty-six counties have been declared federal disaster areas.

Some residents who hadn't seen their homes for days got their first look at the damage.

"It's heartwrenching," said Doris Johnson, whose home along the San Jacinto was flooded to the second floor. "We've lost a lot but we're still alive."

_ Information from the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and New York Times was used in this report.