Searching for Blame in Carroll Blast

January 30, 1995

Placing blame is a natural psychological reaction when a disastrous event occurs. So it's not surprising that some residents of the Autumn Ridge residential development in Westminster are heaping blame on Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. for the natural gas explosion that leveled one house and caused over $1 million in damage to dozens more on Jan. 19.

Blaming BGE may give some of the residents comfort, but, by any objective analysis, the utility could not have prevented the blast.

If there is blame to be placed, Apollo Trenching Co., the contractor laying cable television wire when the clearly marked gas line was cut, is an obvious candidate.

As for BGE, once it was notified, two crews were dispatched to deal with the situation. The first to arrive was a leak survey crew that had been working in Frizzellburg, a nearby community in Carroll County. Once a technician determined there was major gas leak, he began to check the five houses closest to the break.

The technician did not find abnormal levels of gas in the three houses he could enter. He could not get into two of the houses -- including the one that exploded. The construction crew, dispatched from Cockeysville, turned off the gas and repaired the broken main.

BGE has about 600 ruptures a year on its 4,500-mile gas distribution system. The company's crews have extensive experience and carefully follow prescribed steps in making repairs. In this case, they fixed the leak by following standard procedure and observing the normal precautions.

In hindsight, BGE investigators suspect gas must have followed a fissure underground into the basement of the house. The gas was concentrated enough to ignite when the sump pump activated. Even if BGE crews had known that the gas was pooling in the house, they would have had trouble getting in very quickly: The owners had moved to Arkansas and the house was for sale.

The only way to determine that there was gas in the house would have been to break in. Given today's fears about crime, neighbors certainly wouldn't appreciate construction crews breaking into empty houses ostensibly to check for possible gas leaks.

Rather than find emotional relief by trying to affix blame, the residents should continue to take comfort in the fact that neither they nor their loved ones were killed or injured in this terrible accident.

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