"Routine" Gas Leak Results in Major Explosion

Gas leaks. In some cases, they have become like automatic alarms — when we get toned out and think "it will be nothing." Once in a while, however, we get fooled.

Naturally, our response must be that every run is serious and has great potential for horrific outcomes — and we must expect the worst — until "we" (the fire department) gets there, sizes up and determines the action required and the risk to all affected, from the occupants to our members. I love the old saying "it's a fire until we get there and determine that it is not" — and that goes for literally any kind of run or emergency we can get dispatched on.

Historically, there have been some horrific gas leak-related emergencies resulting in the loss of firefighters. One, for example was the North Division Street explosion on Dec. 27, 1983 in a warehouse in Buffalo, NY. The building contained an illegal 500-gallon propane tank whose valve was broken off while it was being moved and the building was evacuated. The propane started to leak and eventually reached an open flame. The tank exploded, killing all five firefighters assigned to Ladder 5 and two civilians, damaging a dozen city blocks and causing millions of dollars of damage to fire equipment (see "Guest Commentary: The Heroes of Dec. 27, 1983," Firehouse®, February 2009).

On May 7, 2009, Prince George's County, MD, firefighters were operating at a significant "smell of gas" at the Penn Mar Shopping Center when they felt a gust of air rush toward the building, which had just been evacuated because of a possible gas leak. Suddenly, a fire was discovered in the rear of the building. Literally a split second later, a massive explosion knocked some firefighters to the pavement and blew two nearby firefighters off their feet. Many of the 40-plus people evacuated from the building watched as the blast lifted its roof and sent glass and debris deep into the parking lot (see Unit Citations in this month's "Heroism & Community Service Awards" program and "Progress Report — Maryland: Prince George's County Explosion Injures 9, Destroys 6 Stores," Firehouse®, July 2009).

Gas burns and is explosive, so it is only natural for us to expect the worst possible situation. The reason we don't always do that is because gas explosions are not that frequent — but they do happen, and when they do, it can be a close call or something even worse.

The Western Reserve Joint Fire District in Ohio experienced a very similar situation. Just like all of us have been, firefighters there were dispatched to a reported gas leak and while they were on the scene investigating, there was a massive explosion. The Western Reserve Joint Fire District serves Poland Township and Village, suburban communities in southeastern Mahoning County. Mahoning County is on the northern end of the Appalachian Corridor in eastern Ohio, on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, in the heart of the "Rust Belt." The Village of Poland was established in 1798, and the fire department was first incorporated in 1923. A fire district was created with the township in 1978 and now operates from three stations using 70 paid-on-call firefighters. Our sincere thanks to Chief David C. "Chip" Comstock and the members of the Western Reserve Joint Fire District, especially those operating at this incident, for their assistance, cooperation and friendship. Additionally, our thanks to the mutual aid companies from the City of Struthers, the Villages of New Middletown and Lowellville, and Springfield Township for their assistance.

On Feb. 13, 2010, at 6:24 A.M., the Western Reserve Joint Fire District was dispatched to a reported gas leak from a stove in a residence at 2816 Center Road in Poland Township. Firefighters were informed that the occupants had exited the house and, pursuant to protocol, a full-box-alarm assignment was dispatched for the interior gas leak. Dispatched on the initial call were Western Reserve Joint Fire District ("The District") Engines 91 and 92, Ladder 91, Light Rescues 91 and 92, Command 90; Village of New Middletown Engine 62; and Springfield Township Engine 21 and Light Rescue 21.

Station 91 was the closest to the call and responded initially with Engine 91 (equipped with a 1,500-gpm pump and 750-gallon tank) and Ladder 91 (a 75-foot quint with a 1,500-gpm pump and 400-gallon tank). These units arrived together approximately 10 minutes after the initial call.

This account is by District Firefighter Al Rivalsky Jr. (11 years of experience):

I responded to the incident as the officer of Engine 91. Upon arrival at the scene, I instructed other responding units to use the state fireground channel for on-scene operations. I donned my self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and approached the D side of the house with Firefighter Steve Dubic. At that time, I could smell a slight odor of gas as we proceeded to the C side of the house because the original call reported a leak from the kitchen stove. We found that the rear door was locked and returned to the front door, which was also locked.

At that time, the homeowner came from across the street where she had been in a waiting vehicle. She handed the key to one of the firefighters, who gave it to Dubic. He opened the front door and entered the structure with a combustible gas detector in hand. There was a pungent smell of natural gas, and at the same time, I heard the combustible gas detector spike. Dubic was immediately instructed to exit the building and close the front door. I notified dispatch that we had a major gas leak and were in the process of attempting to shut down the meter and investigate further. While the Engine 91 crew began donning their facepieces, Firefighter J.R. Warren called for a larger wrench. At that time, I requested Engineer Scott O'Hara to bring a fan to the front of the structure, along with a pipe wrench.

Within seconds, the house exploded. I heard glass shatter and from the corner of my eye I saw fire roll out the front picture window. I was then forced into the front banister. The porch roof collapsed onto my back and SCBA, pinning me down. I yelled "Mayday" as loud as I could while attempting to grab my lapel microphone, which had become dislodged from my hand as a result of the explosion. I again yelled for assistance and additional equipment to remove the house framing from my back.

Shortly thereafter, I freed myself from beneath the porch roof. I then crawled back toward the steps, gathering another firefighter's gloves and helmet and a four-gas detector that I noticed lying on the floor. I saw Warren, his face covered with blood, stumbling from the B side of the structure, and looked to see the location of the remaining crew members. After accounting for all personnel, I proceeded to Engine 91 and stretched a 2½-inch hoseline to the D-side exposure, which was a house approximately 25 feet away. I made the call for water, but by that time, the engine that had been using its deck gun had run out. I returned to the engine, grabbed the hydrant bag and assisted firefighters with establishing a water supply using a four-inch line. The hydrant was buried in snow. I grabbed a flat shovel from Ladder 91 and dug out the hydrant. After the water supply was established, I returned to Engine 91.

The 2½-inch attack line was now being used by firefighters on the D exposure, so I pulled a 1¾-inch line to the B exposure, another home approximately 20 feet away. It was there I remained and I manned that line until I was relieved by arriving companies. Shortly thereafter, I was (against my will) transported to the hospital to be evaluated. After being cleared for duty, I returned to the scene, where I assisted in overhaul.

This account is by District Firefighter Steve Dubic (five years of experience):

I responded to the scene in Engine 91, riding in the rear. I exited the engine and pulled a gas meter from a compartment. I then walked with the Engine 91 crew, who were all wearing SCBA, on the driveway to the home. We checked both the front and rear of the structure and found both doors locked. We then met the homeowner, who had been parked in a car across the street and who provided us with the keys. I unlocked the front door and went into the home by myself, approximately five steps. My gas meter alerted me to the presence of a combustible gas and I immediately exited the home, closing the front door behind me. On the front porch, I began donning my SCBA facepiece so that I could return to the interior of the structure to obtain a meter reading for the upper and lower explosive limits of the gas in the home. Firefighter Rivalsky called for a positive-pressure fan to be brought to the front door.

Within seconds, I heard a loud sound, felt a strong force on my back and I flew through the air, landing on the driveway approximately 15 feet away. I was disoriented for a minute and then realized where I was and that an explosion had taken place. Upon regaining my senses, I looked around and saw that the front porch of the house had collapsed and that the living room was on fire.

Looking for my fellow firefighters, I spotted Troy Stewart assisting J.R. Warren away from the house. I helped Stewart move Warren out to the front of the house, where I sat at the curb waiting for additional help to arrive. I was ordered by command to seek medical attention. At the hospital, I was treated for abrasions to my hands because I had just donned my facepiece and helmet and did not have my gloves on. I was also treated for smoke inhalation and mild blunt-force trauma.

This account is by District Firefighter Troy Stewart (eight years of experience):

I responded in the rear of Engine 91. Upon arrival at the scene, I removed and tested the four-gas meter. Meanwhile, the rest of the company had walked to the front of the house and had checked the rear door first. I met the crew at the front porch with the four-gas meter. Firefighter Dubic entered the residence and immediately exited when the combustible gas meter alerted. When he exited, I began donning my SCBA mask.

While I was placing the mask on my face, the house exploded. The next thing I remember, I woke up in the driveway, approximately eight feet from the house. I tried to stand, but was unable to do so. I then crawled to the front of the house, and heard Firefighter Rivalsky calling "Mayday." He was trapped beneath the front porch roof. Firefighter Warren came from around the A/B corner of the house, his face covered in blood. Warren fell to the ground, and at that time I noticed Rivalsky extricating himself from beneath the porch. I then assisted Warren away from the house, which was on fire, and Dubic helped me move Warren out to the street. I tried to find my helmet, which I realized later was buried beneath the porch. At that point, I was relieved at the scene by arriving personnel and ordered to seek medical attention. At the hospital, I was treated for a chest contusion.

This account is by District Firefighter Terry Ferrick (three years of experience):

I proceeded to the scene in the rear of Engine 91. Upon arrival at the scene, I put on my SCBA and followed Firefighters Rivalsky and Dubic down the driveway to the rear of the house. After finding the rear door locked, we proceeded to the front of the house. The front door was also locked and the homeowner met us with the key. Dubic took the key and opened the front door, where the combustible gas meter almost immediately alarmed. He immediately exited the home and shut the front door. The officer in charge instructed the crew to mask up. Just after I went on air, I heard Rivalsky call for a fan to the front door.

At that time, the house just exploded and I was thrown straight back into a brick porch post. The impact forced my head upward, where I saw the porch over my head collapsing. The next thing I remember, I was on the ground and felt pressure on my helmet. I got myself out from underneath the porch materials and proceeded to the driveway, where I saw Firefighters Dubic and Stewart run to the front of the house. I noticed Rivalsky pinned beneath the debris and Firefighter Warren collapsing in the front yard. I tried to assist Rivalsky while Dubic and Stewart were assisting firefighter Warren. Every time I tried to move toward the area of the front porch collapse, I fell back to the ground and was unable to move.

The next thing I knew, Rivalsky freed himself and told me that he was OK. By that time, the other three firefighters had made it back to Engine 91. I was unable to walk, and I crawled back toward the street, where I sat near the end of the driveway. I was unable to catch my breath. I then was able to move to the rear of the engine. My memory after that point is a blur. I was ordered transported to the hospital, where I was treated for an uncontrolled nosebleed and contusions.

This account is by District Firefighter Scott O'Hara (18 years of experience):

I responded as the chauffeur on Engine 91. Upon arrival, I exited the vehicle, chocked the wheels and set up the overhead night scan to illuminate the scene. I observed the engine crew proceed to the D side of the building, and return to the A side. By observation, I realized that the front door was locked and went to find the homeowner because the dispatcher had stated that she was on scene. I located her, obtained the door key from her and gave it to one of the Engine 91 crew members. I then returned to Engine 91 and retrieved a pipe wrench to assist in shutting off the gas meter. I returned back to the house with the wrench looking for Firefighter Warren, who was attempting to shut off the gas meter.

When I was approximately 15 feet from the house, I saw the flames coming from the back of the house toward the front through the windows. I turned away from the house and the explosion happened. I yelled over the radio that there had been an explosion. I immediately returned to Engine 91 and put it into pump gear. Firefighter John Walsh then took a 1¾-inch line from the engine and stretched it toward the house, which was now on fire. I charged the line. Prior to charging the line, I saw Warren collapsing on the A side of the structure with Firefighters Stewart and Dubic trying to assist him. Firefighter Rivalsky was still trapped beneath the house as the hoseline was being stretched. He was unable to free himself. I told all of the firefighters who were near the house that they needed to get away from the house because of the potential for collapse. All the firefighters appeared to be in a daze, so I repeated my instructions to them. Rivalsky freed himself and informed me that he was OK.

I moved the firefighters away from the house and within several minutes, the entire structure collapsed. I returned to the engine, where I met the arriving chief. A decision was then made to use the deck gun of the engine to knock down as much fire as possible until a water supply could be established. I continued to operate the engine until relieved by responding district firefighters. Upon relief, I left the fire scene to regroup.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.