Worker pierced pipe before US gas blast

2012-11-26 10:00
Inspectors stand in debris at the site of a gas explosion that levelled a strip club in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Jessica Hill, AP)

Inspectors stand in debris at the site of a gas explosion that levelled a strip club in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Jessica Hill, AP)

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Springfield — A natural gas explosion that injured 18 people and damaged 42 buildings in Springfield's entertainment district was blamed on Sunday on a utility worker who accidentally punctured a high-pressure pipeline while looking for a leak.

State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said the Friday night blast in one of the largest cities in the northeastern New England states was caused by "human error". He didn't name the Columbia Gas Company worker who pierced the pipe while responding to reports of a gas leak.

The worker damaged the underground pipe while using a metal probe to locate the source of the leak, Coan said. A flood of gas then built up in a building that housed a strip club, and some kind of spark touched off the blast, officials said.

Coan said the employee was following older markings on a sidewalk that indicated the location of the gas line. He appeared to be an appropriate distance from the line, but the markings were incorrect and the worker accidentally punctured the pipe.

A message left for a Columbia Gas spokesperson wasn't immediately returned. Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of public company NiSource Incorporated, announced earlier on Sunday that it planned to open a claims centre for residents and businesses affected by the explosion at City Hall on Monday.

Preliminary reports showed the blast damaged 42 buildings with 115 residential units. Three buildings were immediately condemned, and 24 others require additional inspections by structural engineers to determine whether they are safe.

Miracle

The building that housed the Scores Gentleman's Club was completely destroyed and a children's day care centre next door was heavily damaged.

After the pipe was ruptured, authorities evacuated several buildings. Most of the people injured were part of a group of gas workers, firefighters and police officers who ducked for cover behind a utility truck just before the blast. The truck was demolished.

Some officials said it was a miracle no one was killed. Springfield Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant praised the actions of city firefighters.

"The firefighters did an excellent job evacuating the area which certainly prevented additional civilian injuries and saved many lives," Conant said.

Columbia Gas officials have been co-operating with investigators and have determined that there are no more gas leaks in the neighbourhood, Mayor Domenic Sarno said.

Coan said the investigation is being turned over to the state Department of Public Utilities. It's not clear whether investigators will ever be able to determine what caused the spark that ignited the explosion.

Springfield, which is 145km west of Boston and has about 150 000 residents, is the largest city in western Massachusetts. It's known as the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is not near the blast site.

The city has been rebuilding from damage caused by a tornado in June 2011.

- AP

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