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Witness describes W.Va. pipeline inferno

Lawrence Messina, Associated Press

National Transportation Safety Board chair Deborah Hersman speaks prior to testimony during a hearing on pipeline safety in Charleston, W.Va., Monday Jan.28, 2013. Before the hearing, Rockefeller criticized the U.S. Office of Management of Budget for slowing down potential safety rules meant to respond to the Sissonville explosion and similar accidents. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Tom Hindman)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- A West Virginia woman feared the world was ending as she watched a gas explosion destroy her Sissonville neighborhood.

Sue Bonham was the first witness at a Monday field hearing held by Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller.

The West Virginia Democrat organized it after the Dec. 11 blast torched homes and damaged Interstate 77.

Bonham said a phone call kept her indoors and alive just as the pipeline exploded. She described a deafening roar followed by a wall of fire and suffocating heat.

Other witnesses represented regulators, pipeline operator Columbia Gas Transmission and a watchdog group. They included National Transportation Safety Board chair Deborah Hersman.

Rockefeller and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin heard that better technology could alert operators more quickly of mishaps. Inspecting the condition of pipeline is also critical.