An investigation is under way after a 12-inch diameter natural gas main exploded late Wednesday night, killing five people, including a four-month-old child, in Allentown, PA. A fire following the explosion affected a total of 47 properties, including 10 businesses, and forced more than 750 people to evacuate over a three-block area.
Response to the fire was hampered by packed layers of snow and ice that prevented emergency responders from repairing a ruptured underground natural gas line that was feeding the fire, said Allentown Fire Chief Robert Scheirer. The blaze was extinguished early Thursday.
Two houses were destroyed and six houses that caught fire after the explosion are a complete loss, Scheirer said. No known gas odor preceded the blast, he said during a news briefing.
Allentown Police Chief Roger MacLean said the epicenter of the explosion was at the home of Beatrice Hall, 74, and her husband, William, 79, who were killed. A four-month-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a 69-year-old woman also were killed on the block where the explosion occurred.
On Friday UGI Utilities Inc. CEO John Walsh issued a statement expressing his sorrow. “Most devastating was the loss of life,” he said. “On behalf of all of us at UGI, we offer our sincere condolences to those who lost loved ones, friends and neighbors.
“Unfortunately, nothing any of us can do will bring those five good people back to their families and friends. What we can do is provide support to the victims’ families, and do our best to make things right for those whose homes and businesses have been damaged or disrupted. This has been our immediate focus at UGI and it will continue to be a priority in the coming days and weeks.”
UGI is “working closely with community service organizations,” and over the weekend employees were going “door to door in the neighborhood to listen to concerns and share our latest information,” said the CEO.
“Importantly, residents and businesses who have returned to the neighborhood can be confident the area is safe. Since the incident, we have thoroughly surveyed every foot of pipeline in the area, and we will be testing the soil around the pipeline for additional clues to the cause of the accident. We continue to work closely with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to investigate and determine exactly what happened and why.”
Walsh detailed what was known as of late Friday. At around 11 p.m. last Wednesday, he said UGI received a 911 telephone call about the explosion.
“UGI was not conducting any maintenance or repair of its facilities or pipelines in this area and had not received any reports of a natural gas odor prior to the explosion,” he noted. “The process used to shut off the main included spraying foam directly into the gas main to stop the flow of gas.”
He noted that “routine gas leak surveys had been completed one day prior to the incident in this area and had revealed no leaks.” The gas main involved in the explosion had no leak history.
UGI Utilities provides gas and electric services to Pennsylvania and Maryland customers. PPL Electric Utilities, which serves the area, said about 150 residents were without power after the fire downed dozens of power lines.
David Van Allen, who manages Allentown’s emergency medical services, said 19 paramedics were on the scene along with five of the 10 mutual aid companies that originally responded. Eight people, including one firefighter, were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, either from the explosion or from being evacuated, he said.
“This is a real tragedy,” Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski said. “This is a dangerous time of year with freezing, expansion and contraction of the lines because it gets cold.”
A press conference was held Thursday at Allentown’s Gross Towers seniors apartment complex, which was evacuated following the explosion. Ironically, a gas leak at the complex in 1994 triggered two explosions and a fire, killing one person and injuring more than 60 people.
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