“Human error” by a utility employee caused an explosion on the Columbia Gas Co. of Massachusetts system that rocked Springfield, MA, Friday night, damaging 42 homes and businesses and sending 18 people, mostly first responders, to area hospitals, said state Fire Marshall Stephen Coan and the Massachusetts’ Department of Public Utilities (DPU) Sunday. But the head of the company said the worker followed proper procedure.

According to the findings of the fire marshal and the DPU, an unidentified employee of Columbia Gas “accidentally punctured” a pipe in the vicinity of a strip club on Worthington St., which was the epicenter of the explosion, said DPU spokesman Reggie Zimmerman. He noted that the DPU will continue to look into the actions of the utility.

But Columbia of Gas of Massachusetts President Steven Bryant defended the unidentified employee, saying that he was acting according to company procedure when he responded to the smell of gas. The long-term employee “responded to the leak and in the course of looking for the leak, accidentally struck the line and instructed everyone to evacuate. He shut off the gas main as well,” said Michael Banas, a spokesman for Columbia Gas parent NiSource.

Investigators said the employee was following incorrect markings on the sidewalk outside of the strip club that indicated the location of the gas line, Associated Press reported. Banas declined to comment on this, saying that the investigation — which will be conducted by the DPU — is ongoing.

Springfield Fire Marshall Joe Conan told reporters that a call reporting a strong gas odor at the Scores Gentleman’s Club came in at 4:20 p.m., and the explosion happened at 5:25 p.m., about 15 minutes after the gas was shut off. Officials said that teams of inspectors were sent over the weekend to begin looking at damaged buildings, and there would likely be controlled demolition of those that were badly damaged to make the scene safe for further investigation.

The explosion, which could be heard for miles, damaged homes and businesses in a three to four-block radius, displacing hundreds of residents. Some of the buildings “may be uninhabitable and will have to be torn down,” said Lieutenant Robert Moynihan of the Springfield Police Department. There were no deaths and the injuries were minor. The dollar amount of the damages still is being assessed.

It’s “more than likely that they [Columbia Gas] will be fined” for the accident, a source said.

Utility officials were responding to reports of a gas odor when their leak-detecting probes “went off the charts” at the strip club, Moynihan said.

The gas workers got indications that the building was about to blow and ran for cover behind a utility truck — along with firefighters and police officers — Mark McDonald, president of the New England Gas Workers Association, told AP. Much of the area had already been evacuated.

“As a result, nobody [was] killed…We’re very fortunate,” Moynihan noted. Eleven firefighters, several gas company employees and two police officers were treated and released at area hospitals for facial burns and broken bones, he said.

The aftermath of the explosion “looks like a war zone in the Gaza strip,” Moynihan told NGI. The gas company opened a claims center Monday at Springfield City Hall for those in the community who have been affected by the Nov. 23 explosion.

The incident in the western Massachusetts city of 150,000 came within days of the release of a study by Boston and Duke universities, which concluded that Boston’s aging urban natural gas pipeline infrastructure is rife with leaks (see Daily GPI, Nov. 26). The researchers identified 3,356 methane leaks across all 785 roads in Boston. Most of the leaks are tiny, but six locations had gas levels higher than the threshold at which explosions could occur.

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