6 county workers hospitalized after sewer blast in Arundel

Men were conducting routine pipe inspection when gases were ignited

July 17, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Two Anne Arundel County public works employees were badly burned and four others were also hospitalized yesterday afternoon when something triggered an underground sewer explosion in the northern part of the county.

The men were working inside the system, near the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. facilities in the wooded area between Solley Road and Fort Smallwood Road, when a flash fire ignited about 1:30 p.m., said Capt. Robert Rose, a spokesman for the county Fire Department.

Public works spokeswoman Pam Jordon said power tools may have ignited a normal buildup of gases in an underground "vault" that provides access to pipes.

County and Maryland Occupational Safety and Health officials were investigating the accident, Jordon said.

Frank Weilman Jr., 43, of Pasadena and Tom Lange, 42, of Glen Burnie sustained second-degree burns to the chest, face and arms, Rose said. They were airlifted to John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where Weilman was listed in critical condition and Lange was in fair condition last night.

Public works employees Steve Dary of Glen Burnie, Larry Kiessling of Severn, Mark Bois of Pasadena and Byron Belcher of the Eastern Shore were also transported to the hospital's burn center by ambulance, Rose said. All four men, whose ages were unavailable, were listed in fair condition last night.

One public works official called the blast "minor" because no one was killed and the sewer system did not appear to be structurally damaged.

"I've worked here since 1977, and I've never seen this occur," said Paul Lesher, a regional manager for the county public works department. "But I have heard of it happening in many other places."

About a dozen county public works employees were preparing a force main as part of a routine sewage pipeline inspection when something ignited a pocket of gases - including methane - normally produced by decomposing waste water, Lesher said.

Employees described the incident as a flash fire, Lesher said. Seconds after the blast, one of the men working underground was able to pull himself out, and other employees helped the second man out, he said.

Early reports indicated the explosion had occurred at a BGE facility, so numerous BGE employees were at the scene yesterday. But none of the power lines that run parallel to the sewer lines was damaged, Lesher said.

The blast did not affect the county's sewer system, Lesher said, because that line had been closed off for the inspection. The sewage pipes in that area are 36 inches in diameter and about 10 years old, he said.

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