PITTSBURGH - Gas Line Puncture Blamed for Blasts, 3 Injured

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Title: Gas line puncture blamed for blasts that injured 3 in Hempfield

Thursday, March 23, 2000

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette http://www.post-gazette.com/regionstate/20000323explode1.asp

[Note: Please refer to link for photos]

This story is based on the reporting of staff writers Ginny Kopas, Brenden Sager, Marylynne Pitz and Lawrence Walsh.


It was shortly after noon yesterday when Carrie Berlin called 911 to report a strong odor of gas at her home at 38 Patricia Drive in Hempfield.

Firefighters inspect the ruins of school teacher Carrie Berlin's home at 38 Patricia Drive, Hempfield, after the explosion there yesterday. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

Hers was one of numerous calls that alerted authorities to a problem brewing in the Hempfield Manor housing development in Westmoreland County. And hers was one of two houses that exploded and were destroyed in short succession just after 1 p.m.

Last night, Berlin, 27, a teacher in the Latrobe Area School District who had taken a day off to attend a funeral, stood at a makeshift American Red Cross emergency center in the Hempfield Township Municipal Building, being comforted by friends.

She had walked out of her brown, vinyl-sided home wearing yellow striped pajama pants, an oversized T-shirt and worn slippers less than an hour before it exploded.

Her next-door neighbors at 40 Patricia Drive were not as fortunate.

Albert Greco, 61, and his wife Janice, 59, were in their home when firefighters went through the neighborhood to evacuate but they did not answer their door.

The Grecos' home was nearly leveled and the couple was hospitalized last night. Albert was in fair condition with burns at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. Janice was in fair condition with burns at Westmoreland Regional Hospital in Greensburg, where another neighbor, Helen Feretti, 77, of 36 Patricia Drive, also was in fair condition. A hospital spokeswoman said she was being treated for chest pains.

State police said they did not know whether the Grecos heard the knocks at their door.

The explosions left the suburban neighborhood that had been carved out of rolling farmland looking like a war zone, when an army of state police officers, four fire companies and numerous utility workers moved in to evacuate people from 157 homes and contain a gas leak.

A crew installing television cable accidentally broke open an underground gas line, which caused a leak and the subsequent explosions.

The crew from Channel Communications, a subcontractor for AT&T Cable Services, was using boring equipment to clear space for a fiber-optic line when the nose of the gear hit a sewer line and ricocheted down into the gas line, said Dan Garfinkel, a regional communications director for AT&T. He said the cable had to be installed underground because all utilities in the neighborhood are underground.

The crew members, who also smelled gas, went door to door to tell people to leave their homes and immediately called police and the Peoples Natural Gas Co., which provides service to the neighborhood, Garfinkel said. "They did all the right things and followed procedure," he said.

About 45 minutes passed from the time of the accident until the explosion, Garfinkel said.

Elmore Lockley, a spokesman for Peoples, said he did not know if Channel Communications had called a toll-free number posted in the neighborhood that advises workers to check for the location of underground lines before beginning work.

Related article: Blast destroys Industry home "Our investigation will gather that information," Lockley said.

But Garfinkel said Channel Communications had hired another subcontractor to mark the location of all the underground utilities before the work installing fiber-optic cable began.

"So all the normal procedures were followed to the best of our knowledge. Obviously, we're investigating. This was absolutely done by the book," Garfinkel said.

And Thomas Wester, vice president of operations for Peoples, said he did not think the subcontractor failed to detect the gas line.

"In our opinion, they did not miss that line because there were yellow marks on the pavement of the line," Wester said.

However, Carlos Fuentes, one of the workers, said the street was not marked with a locator for a gas line. None of the workers spoke English; Fuentes gave an interview in Spanish.

And neighbor Kathy Panagos and her son Ted insisted that yesterday wasn't the first time the crew hit a gas line.

Ted Panagos , 23, said he was returning from classes at Westmoreland County Community College on Monday when he stopped because a road cone was blocking the entrance to his home on Tami Drive, behind the first home that exploded yesterday.

"When I drove past and pulled into my driveway, they started yelling and signaling me to turn off the car," said Panagos. He and his mother said they noticed a strong smell of gas then too.

Lockley, the Peoples spokesman, said the gas line that was ruptured yesterday was a 12-inch one that supplies many Greensburg residences.

"There was gas that went into a sewer line after the contractor struck the [gas] line," Lockley said. Hempfield Supervisor Bill Reese, who is director of public safety, said that is how the gas was able to flow into the homes that exploded and some others.

About 85 homes experienced an interruption in gas service and crews went house to house yesterday to detect leaks and to restore service, Wester said.

Reese said that the inspections of the individual homes in the housing plan -- mostly three-bedroom, split-level, brick-and-siding dwellings built in the 1970s and valued at $100,000 to $150,000 -- were taking 15 to 20 minutes each, more than twice as long as originally estimated.

Emergency vehicles line Patricia Drive, Hempfield, after the explosions yesterday. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

A locksmith was brought in so crews could gain access to homes whose owners could not be found, and animal control officers assisted in instances when family pets did not want to let workers in.

Large fans were being used to clear the air in many of the homes.

By 1 a.m., all but 10 of the 157 inspections had been completed. Although all of the residents were told they couldn't go home until all 157 checks were done, two families on Tami Drive were told they would not be able to go home until problems uncovered in their homes could be corrected. One home had a high methane gas reading and the other had a gas leak, both situations caused by yesterday's explosions, Reese said.

Reese announced that news to about 75 men, women and children who were assembled at the municipal building, waiting for word on when they could go home. Earlier in the evening, more than 100 people had been at the center.

He advised them they could stay for further updates, could go to the homes of friends or relatives if they wished, or they could have a place to stay arranged through the American Red Cross.

When the families learned around 1 a.m. that it was unlikely anyone would get back into their homes before dawn, about 20 people took the Red Cross up on the offer and were to stay at a Knight's Inn in Greensburg.

The Red Cross was handing out soft drinks provided by Ralph's Distributor in Greensburg and Giant Eagle and food that had been donated by the Red Lobster, Taco Bell, Olive Garden and Eastside Pizza restaurants.

Yesterday afternoon, students from Hempfield Area middle and elementary schools who live in Hempfield Manor were taken by bus after classes to the district's high school, where they were given snacks while waiting for their parents to come for them.

In all, 97 district students couldn't go home. They waited at the high school until their parents came.


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 23, 2000

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