Chief: Broken gas line caused explosion

March 6, 2008 10:45:40 AM PST
A broken gas line caused a suburban Pittsburgh house explosion that killed one person and injured a 4-year-old girl, officials said Thursday. Holiday Park Fire Chief Larry Glass said the line had already deteriorated before Wednesday afternoon's explosion, which leveled one house and damaged 14 others.

Lynn Celia, a neighbor, said she was on the phone in her house when she heard what sounded like a bomb going off. Things flew off the shelves and fell off the walls, and Celia said she ran out to see that the house across the street was nothing but a pile of smoking rubble.

Celia said she began frantically looking for the little girl and grandfather who she knew had been inside.

"There was Gianna" sitting in the rubble, Celia told The Associated Press. "I scooped her up. She just kept saying 'Where's Pappy, where's Pappy.' I told her I'd try to find Pappy."

The 4-year-old girl, Gianna Pettinato, suffered a broken leg. Her grandfather, 64-year-old Richard Leith, was killed.

A Children's Hospital spokesman on Thursday declined to discuss the girl's condition, saying the family has requested no information be released.

After finding Gianna, Celia said she began searching for Leith. "I'm screaming Rick's name," she recounted. "He was covered with debris. That's why I couldn't see him."

Rescuers eventually found Leith, who had been thrown some 20 feet by the force of the blast. The retired postal worker was found in the driveway next to his car, Celia said.

After Wednesday's explosion, pieces of burnt insulation and debris were scattered over a 1,000-foot area, and part of the home's roof was perched precariously on a nearby tree.

Houses on either side were heavily damaged and will have to be torn down, Allegheny County Emergency Management Chief Robert Full said. Twelve other homes had less severe damage.

Allegheny County Chief Executive toured the site early Thursday and met with residents.

"It's pretty devastating and it's probably a blessing that there weren't more people hurt when you see the damage here," Onorato told reporters.

Karl Gunther, a pipeline-accident investigator with the National Transportation and Safety Board, confirmed there was a broken gas line. The pipe, which he estimated to be at least 40 years old, will be sent to Washington, D.C., where metallurgists will inspect it.

"There is a broken two-inch steel line with a crack in it. We don't know why it cracked," Gunther said.

Elmore Lockley, a spokesman for gas utility Dominion Peoples, confirmed the explosion involved one of its lines, but said the cause had not been determined.

One of the mysteries, Gunther said, was that no one reported the smell of gas ahead of the explosion.

Natural gas is odorless, but gas companies insert a chemical to ensure that people will be able to smell it and be alert to suspected leaks.

Lockley said the line had been tested last month and had an odor. Testing done on Wednesday after the explosion also found the gas to have an odor, he said.

Curious onlookers, Dominion workers and government inspectors milled around the debris-filled street on Thursday. Damaged homes were being boarded up as residents worked with insurance adjustors.

All that remained of the Pettinato home was a charred foundation wall.

Also Thursday, a school about a mile from the house that blew up was evacuated due to a gas leak. Students at Adlai Stevenson Elementary School were taken to a nearby middle school for several hours until the leak was repaired.

Dave Spigelmyer, an Equitable Gas Co. spokesman, said Thursday's school evacuation was traced to a leaky valve and was unrelated to Wednesday's house explosion.