Propane Leak Eyed as Cause of Fatal Maine Blast
Feb. 12--BATH -- An explosion that destroyed a brick duplex and killed one resident Tuesday was likely triggered by a propane leak in the building's heating system, investigators said Tuesday.
Investigators with the State Fire Marshal's Office spent Tuesday afternoon peeling back layers of debris in what was left of the apartment complex at 29-31 Bluff Road, searching for clues about the blast. They expected to continue their investigation today.
Investigators suspect a propane leak caused the explosion. The heavier than air gas likely accumulated in a low spot in the building, which has a small, three-foot high crawl space, and was ignited by a spark.
Residents were startled awake by the 5 a.m. explosion, which leveled the one-story building and shattered nearby windows.
"It just lifted me right out of my bed. All you could see was fire out here," said Harvey Lane, a nearby resident, while gesturing toward the rubble. "It was the biggest explosion you could think of ... I've got glass all over my living room."
Bath firefighters arrived at the large apartment complex at 5 a.m. and encountered an inferno burning what was left of the building.
"It's so hot that everything that's combustible within the structure is on fire," said Fire Chief Stephen Hinds.
Hinds said firefighters immediately directed jets of water onto three nearby propane storage tanks to cool them off, then shut them off so the gas would not continue to fuel the fire.
Firefighters brought the blaze under control within about an hour and were able to search the rubble. They discovered the body of one victim, which was removed later by the Office of the Chief Medical Examimer.
By late Tuesday, authorities still had not determined the identity or the gender of the body, whose remains were badly burned.
One woman lived in 29 Bluff Road and remained missing, authorities said.
The state medical examiner plans an autopsy Wednesday, but identification may require a DNA analysis, depending on the condition of the remains, authorities said.
The man who lived in the adjacent unit, Kenneth Hooper, had already left for work at the nearby McDonald's a half-hour before the blast. When he returned to discover his house gone and the rubble on fire, he became overwhelmed and had to receive medical treatment, authorities said.
Hooper was later released. Three other people received minor injuries in the aftermath of the explosion, including one who injured a foot stepping on sharp debris.
The Bath complex, called Atlantic Townhouse Apartments, is managed by Keystone Management, a Concord, N.H. firm that oversees properties in Maine, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Reached by telephone Tuesday, a company employee said there would be "no comment at this time."
On its website, Keystone Management lists Maine properties for rent in Augusta, Bangor, Bath, Brewer, Gardiner, Oakland, Orono, Pittsfield, Waterville and Winslow. The website also says the company is committed to green initiatives including, where available, conversion from oil-based heating systems to more efficient propane- or natural gas-based systems.
The propane for the complex is supplied by Irving Oil and workers for the company were at the scene Tuesday morning. However, a spokeswoman for the company said Irving does not maintain the system.
"We supply the product," said Carolyn Van der Veen, in the company's headquarters in St. John, New Brunswick. She did not know what kind of heaters were in place in the apartments that exploded.
"The concern right now is ensuring that the authorities are able to conduct an investigation and we certainly will be supporting that in any way we can and offering our sympathies to the family members," she said.
The explosion sent debris flying 200 yards and left clothing hanging from the upper branches of nearby trees. Lighter debris, such as insulation, was found more than a quarter mile away.
"We actually thought it was a plane crash until the sparks and debris started flying by our window," said Debra Prindall, who lives two buildings away.
Lisa and James King could not return to their apartment next door to the destroyed building, because the blast damaged the rear wall, leaving it unstable, they said.
That did not know the name of the woman who lived in the apartment that was destroyed but said they were fond of her.
"We just said 'hi' to her in the neighborhood," Lisa King said. "She's a real nice lady."
The couple said they were asleep when the blast occurred, but ran outside to help an elderly neighbor from her house.
"She was really shook up," Lisa King said. "It blew out her kitchen door and window."
The Kings said their house next door was hit by a door from the crawl space of the destroyed house.
The couple stood along with many other residents of the complex, watching and waiting for permission to return to their homes. Investigators had set barricades around the area blocking access to several of the closest buildings.
The explosion could be heard on the far side of town, said Terry Nordmann, who drove over to inspect the damage after learning what had caused the blast.
Mike Cyr was drinking a cup of coffee in his apartment across the street when the house exploded.
"I thought my door was going to get blown in," Cyr said. "I was petting my cat and she must have jumped about two feet."
Throughout the day Tuesday, state police troopers conducted forensic mapping of he area which will assist the investigation, said Sgt. Ken Grimes, who is overseeing a team of investigators for the fire marshal's office. A state police airplane also circled the area to get an aerial view of the debris field.
Propane is a popular heating fuel for apartment complexes when natural gas is not available, because the individual heating units for each apartment are less expensive than oil burners and require less maintenance, according to people in the heating industry.
The state does not require propane systems to be inspected regularly. The Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which includes the oil and solid fuel board, does require technicians to be licensed and the systems must meet certain standards when they are installed.
"Department inspectors can, and do, make inspections when individuals or business owners or local officials ask questions or raise concerns, but the department doesn't have a role in conducting regular inspections of propane tanks in homes or other buildings," said Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.
Two inspectors from the department joined investigators from the fire marshal's office at the scene, to aid in the inquiry.
Lee Landry, managing partner of reVision Heat, a Portland heating contractor, said leaks are relatively rare because of safety precautions. His company rigorously tests piping when installing a propane or natural gas furnace, but there's no requirement for annual or biannual checks, he said.
If a customer runs out, a supplier is supposed to do a pressure check because the only reason for a tank to run dry is if the supplier miscalculated how much fuel was being used or if there was a leak in the system.
Like natural gas, propane has a skunky odor added to it so people can smell if there's a leak.
Grimes, from the State Fire Marshal's Office, said propane heating system explosions are extremely rare.
"It works very well as long as it's properly installed and maintained," he said. "This is one incident going bad out of the tens of thousands of units in the state."
Residents of nearby apartments said the propane heaters in some of the units had been malfunctioning since the weekend blizzard.
Scott Wallace, who lives at 39 Bluff Road, said the snow was apparently blocking the exhaust vents for the propane heater. That caused the heaters to shut off, he said. It wasn't clear if that could have caused the gas to leak and lead to the explosion.
State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said blocked exhaust vents could cause a problem with carbon monoxide but are unlikely to cause a buildup of unburned gas that would contribute to an explosion.
Safety mechanisms are designed to shut off the fuel when the vents are blocked, Thomas said.
The cause is also unlikely to be a faulty exterior tank, he said.
"Usually, in situations like this, it's not necessarily the tank that fails," Thomas said. "It's a leak somewhere where the gas builds up. If you get a large volume of gas and an ignition source, it's kind of like sitting on Mt. Vesuvius."
Copyright 2013 - Portland Press Herald, Maine