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Experts: Propane a possible cause of home explosion

By Jessica Priest
May 31, 2014 at 12:31 a.m.
Updated June 2, 2014 at 1:02 a.m.


PROPANE SAFETY TIPS:

• Keep flammable and combustible materials such as paper, clothing, wood, gasoline or solvents away from any open flames coming from appliances.

• Know how to shut off the gas supply from your tank or cylinder. If you do not know how, contact your propane supplier for instructions.

• Never place your head near or directly over the valves on your storage tank.

• Never store propane cylinders or containers inside any enclosed building.

• Treat all propane gas odors seriously and never assume that propane odor is only the result of your tank being near empty. If the odor persists, you may have a serious leak. If you suspect a leak, contact a propane supplier.

SOURCE: Texas Railroad Commission

Although authorities say it's too soon to know what caused a home near Victoria to explode, some experts say signs point to propane used to heat the home.

From what they've heard, read and seen, some attorneys familiar with such cases said they think a propane leak likely caused a blast that also damaged at least 12 other homes and could be felt for miles.

"If there was a direct lightning strike, it wouldn't cause an explosion," said Victoria civil attorney Jim Cole, who in 2000 represented a Colorado County family that lost four children in a home propane explosion. "Lightning can start a fire. Most of the time, it doesn't even do that, though."

The home at 801 Whispering Oaks Drive exploded with 26-year-old Haley Singer and her infant daughter, Parker, inside. Miraculously, officials say, Parker, born Jan. 8, was found alive by firefighters. She was released from a San Antonio hospital a day later.

The number of propane incidents reported to the Texas Railroad Commission has remained for at least the past nine years between 50 and 70.

Wednesday's explosion in Victoria is already on the list, even though it is still under investigation.

In 2010, the year with the most explosions (17) caused by propane, three people died. In 2013, the year with the most propane-related deaths with 11, there were seven explosions, according data collected by the agency.

The commission is among several agencies investigating and anticipates issuing a report in 90 days, spokeswoman Ramona Nye said.

Victoria County Fire Marshal Ron Pray confirmed the Singers powered some of their appliances with propane. They had a tank that held 250 gallons, but he would not say how far away it stood from the house.

Kellogg Propane Inc., 1602 Houston Highway, is the last company on record to have serviced that tank, Nye wrote via email Friday.

The commission, which licenses propane dealers and sets safety regulations, also has not fined or sent any warning letters to the company, which opened in 1984.

It has an A-plus rating with the Better Business Bureau, having not received any complaints within the past three years.

The Advocate contacted Kellogg Propane Inc. by phone Friday to learn whether anything noteworthy happened during the last service of the tank. A man who would not identify himself declined to comment because, he said, it was not clear whether a propane leak caused the explosion.

The Singers bought the home in 2012, according to the Victoria Central Appraisal District.

The home was built in the 1990s, Pray said.

W. Perry Zivley Jr., a Houston-based attorney, shared his experience in this type of personal injury litigation.

The first case to pop into his mind was one in Wyoming in 2006.

"She'll live in a nursing home the rest of her life, and she was in her 40s when it happened. Now, she's not capable of walking," Zivley said about his client, the lone survivor of the explosion of a log cabin-type home built in the 1930s.

The woman and two others were in the living room when snow slid off a neighboring home's roof, breaking the pipe that regulated the flow of propane used by their appliances.

The home's propane supplier of 20 years was found at fault in the case because that regulator shouldn't have been within 18 inches of a crawl space vent that sucked the propane into the basement, where it pooled, mixing dangerously with the air, he said.

"When the hot water heater switched on, it was all over. They didn't know what hit them. They were killed, and they were killed instantly," Zivley said.

Investigators later found that 3 to 5 pounds of propane was missing from his client's tank, Zivley said.

Most residential propane users don't allow their propane tanks to empty before calling a technician for a refill, he said, missing the opportunity for a more comprehensive test. It is only when the tank is empty that the technician is required to not only check the pressure of the line running from the tank to the house but also the lines running from the tank to the appliances, he said.

John Dixon, a technician with AAA Butane Gas Co. in Yoakum, charges an automatic $45 fee when refilling a tank to do a test from the tank to the home.

"You disconnect the line from the regulator, which is coming off the tank. Then, you tie into the line with your gauge. ... You pump up to 3 pounds per square inch, and for 10 minutes, you watch the gauge to see if it falls," he said.

If the gauge falls after 10 minutes, there's a leak.

He said AAA Butane Gas Co. keeps records of these tests for itself and the Texas Railroad Commission.

Otherwise, "we could get our fannies fined," he said.

Propane, delivered from the tank to a home in a galvanized pipe, is usually safe. It's unusual for an explosion like this to happen, Dixon said.

"Well, first of all, for that much vapor to cause that large of an explosion, you would have to smell it. There's just no way you couldn't," Dixon said.

Propane, a compressed byproduct of natural gas, is odorless. The rotten egg-type smell associated with propane is added at the refinery, but Zivley said it can dissipate over time.

That's an issue likely to come up in a case in which Cole is representing a victim of a propane explosion at Pioneer Natural Resources in Victoria.

In the lawsuit, filed in January, Cole claims no odorant was added, so his client did not know propane was filling an office he was working in. His client, who was hospitalized for burns, is suing Pioneer, the plumber and the refinery.

What leads Cole to believe the home explosion Wednesday was caused by propane, too, is the small fire or lack of one.

"The house was completely gone. What that says to me is that there was enough explosive material in the home that once there was an ignition, it would have immediately consumed all the oxygen available. In order to have a fire, you have to have oxygen," Cole said.

Some neighbors reported Wednesday extinguishing a small fire atop the rubble before first responders arrived.

Bison Engineering Inc., of Kingswood, specializes in analyzing such incidents. Contacted by the Advocate, a company spokesman said Bison couldn't comment because it had been hired to investigate the Victoria explosion.

In the past three years, consumers have filed 97 complaints about propane companies with the Better Business Bureau.

That's a small number compared with other industries, said Monica Russo, director of investigations and media relations with the bureau in Houston and South Texas.

"Most of them are due to billing or (breach of) contract issues, so I'm not seeing anything in the way of safety complaints," Russo said.

As with most contract work, doing research goes a long way. Look at both the nature of the complaint and how it was resolved, she said.

Pray said homeowners can test the propane tank lines from the appliances even if the tank isn't empty.

His office recommends nursing and foster homes have testing performed annually.

The best step worried homeowners can take, he said, is to pay a licensed dealer or plumber to perform a pressure test.

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