Blast Levels Texas House; Three Lucky to Escape

July 23--In the predawn darkness, 18-year-old Joseph Turner grabbed his shotgun. He and others living along a winding country road near Willis in Montgomery County had been awakened early Tuesday by a thundering boom, like the fusillade of a hundred cannons, accompanied by reverberations that shifted homes, shattered windows and knocked objects off walls.

Turner was relieved when he learned that his neighborhood wasn't under attack. Yet when he looked across the street, he was stunned to find nothing recognizable remained of the house that a young couple had just refurbished.

The wood-frame three-bedroom home in the 5500 block of Mandy Lane had been reduced to splinters. A portion of the detached garage was still standing. The dark sky was raining tiny bits of insulation and ash that covered a 600-foot area like snow.

Turner and other neighbors then spotted Jason and Kristen Brown. They were still in their pajamas, severely burned and crawling out of the shredded debris that had caught fire. Her brother, Ryan Mitchell, who had been visiting, had been burned on his legs and was found pacing the street in shock.

Turner and his neighbors say it's nothing less than a miracle that the three are alive. They were flown by medical helicopter to Memorial Hermann Hospital, where Jason Brown was listed in critical condition and his wife in serious condition. Her brother was treated for burns and released Tuesday afternoon. "If you don't believe in God, you should now. Because I don't believe anyone should have survived this explosion," Turner said.

Investigators with the Texas Railroad Commission, Montgomery County fire marshal and U.S. Department of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms searched the debris, trying to determine a cause for the blast. It could have been a leak from a propane tank, officials said.

"We cannot say yet why this happened," said ATF spokeswoman Nicole Strong. "But if the family members were in the back bedrooms (when gas was collecting in the house) and the source of ignition was in the kitchen, that could help explain how they might have gotten out."

A 250-gallon propane tank was still intact behind the home and connected to pipes leading to the house.

Jason Oliphant, chief of Montgomery County Emergency Service District No. 1, said the propane supplier for the home had not yet been identified. He also did not know when the tank had last been inspected for potential leaks.

Rex Morris, 18, who lives next door, said he saw a truck deliver propane to the Browns' home on Monday.

Oliphant said this explosion reminds him of an incident about a year and a half ago in the small town of Dobbin in Montgomery County. A propane leak led to an explosion that severely injured 8-month-old Wyatt Mock and killed his grandmother, Jennifer Mock, and great-aunt, Lena Knight.

Propane, an odorized liquid petroleum gas, is heavier than air and can collect along the ground or floor. It becomes dangerous if ignited.

In the Dobbin incident, investigators found 50 gallons of propane gas had collected underneath the house from corroded pipes. That gas was ignited when Knight turned on a stove burner in the kitchen, officials said.

Relatives have filed a $1 million wrongful death lawsuit against Triangle B Propane, the company that supplied the gas. The case is pending in 410th state district court.

In that case, the Texas Railroad Commission determined the company had no documentation that it had performed any leak checks for several years, including when it delivered 100 gallons on the day before the explosion, the suit says. The company could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

"We get about one or two houses exploding from propane leaks each year in Texas," said Strong, the ATF spokeswoman.

Tuesday's explosion was frightening, said Sheree Akins, 52, a neighbor of the Browns.

"When I came outside, there was an awful smell from the fire," Akins said. "All this stuff was raining down and I could hear Kristen screaming, 'Where's my husband?' until she learned he'd gotten out, too."

Neighbors carefully carried her to a porch chair to rest until medical crews arrived.

"I let her use my cellphone to call her father. She told him her house was disintegrated and that she'd lost all her babies, which is what she called her seven dogs," Akins said.

Five were later found alive.

Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle

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