Blast that leveled house blamed on spark from basement pump

January 21, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Bill Talbott contributed to this article.

The explosion that destroyed a Westminster home and caused more than $1 million in damage Thursday afternoon was ignited by a tiny spark from a basement sump pump, state officials said yesterday.

The blast was fueled by natural gas that seeped for 90 minutes from a ruptured 4-inch Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. pipeline into the basement of 90 Sunshine Way, said state Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele.

He ruled the 1:18 p.m. explosion at the unoccupied home accidental. There were no injuries.

As residents of the Autumn Ridge neighborhood began to cope with the damage -- more than 65 homes in the 12-year-old development were damaged, 20 were deemed uninhabitable by county building inspectors, and four are expected to be torn

down -- BGE officials were at a loss to explain why gas flowed through the ruptured line for more than 90 minutes before it was shut off.

"We've got some real concern about that," said Herbert D. Coss Jr., vice president for BGE's gas division. He declined to be more specific, except to say that the company is conducting a "complete investigation."

Yesterday, county building inspectors were helping the owners of damaged homes retrieve their possessions and determine what repairs were needed before they could move back in.

"I was really surprised by the inside of the house," said Kenneth Ireland, who lives across the street from the destroyed home. "The ceiling is buckled, metal is sticking out of the walls. I expected the walls to be intact. They weren't."

His home will need "substantial repairs" before he, his wife and their two children can live in it again, Mr. Ireland said.

Workers from Apollo Trenching Co. of Ellicott City were laying cable for Prestige Cablevision Thursday morning when a piece of digging equipment ruptured the plastic gas line at 10:30 a.m., officials said. An Apollo employee told a Prestige official of the accident, and that official called BGE to report it.

Mr. Coss confirmed that the utility was called at 10:33 a.m. Two crews -- one from nearby Frizzelburg and another from Cockeysville, in Baltimore County -- were dispatched to the north Westminster neighborhood. The crews arrived about 11:30 a.m., and the gas main was shut off at 12:01 p.m., Mr. Coss said.

The Frizzelburg crew, which arrived first, checked surrounding houses for gas. But the members of that crew were not qualified to shut off a gas main, said BGE spokeswoman Peggy Mulloy. The crew from Cockeysville, which had been at the scene of another emergency -- arrived shortly after the first crew and was able to shut off gas service, she said.

Ms. Mulloy said BGE has no standard response time to a gas emergency call, except that crews are instructed to "respond as quickly as possible." She said the utility's gas lines are struck more than 600 times a year.

Little was known yesterday about Apollo Trenching Co., except that the company is a subcontractor hired by a Prestige contractor. The company, which does not have a listed telephone number, also does not have a corporate charter.

County officials said Prestige Cable had obtained the required permit to dig under Sunshine Way, but that the permit does not mention Apollo Trenching Co. Miss Utility, a Laurel-based company that determines the location of underground pipelines and cables, had been called before Thursday, a Miss Utility official confirmed yesterday. The gas lines were clearly marked, BGE and Prestige officials said.

Prestige officials in Maryland and at the company's headquarters in Georgia declined to comment yesterday. They released a statement saying they were "actively working with the other companies involved to investigate the situation."

Residents who began returning to their homes yesterday found inspectors, contractors, insurance adjusters, reporters and television crews roaming the neighborhood.

Electricity and gas service -- three homes in the neighborhood use natural gas -- were restored before 10 a.m. yesterday, BGE officials said.

No one will be able to live at 90 Sunshine Way. The 5-year-old home, owned by Judy E. and Robert G. Metzgar Jr., had been reduced to a pile of smoldering wood, brick and aluminum yesterday. Much of the Metzgars' clothing, furniture and appliances was scattered around the ruined house, which had been unoccupied for about a month.

A washing machine was in the back yard; a couch had been tossed onto a heap of rubble; and clothes had been thrown into a pile near where the front door had been. A small desk with neat stacks of papers and a typewriter remained intact in a corner in the basement.

The Metzgars, who have moved to Arkansas, were in Westminster last night. They could not be reached for comment.

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