You can now read 10 articles a month for free. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

Error cited as cause of gas blast in Springfield

Utility worker punctured line

Human error was the cause of Friday’s natural gas explosion in downtown Springfield that leveled a strip club, damaged dozens of other buildings, and injured at least 19 people, officials said on Sunday.

The blast at Scores Gentleman’s Club occurred when a worker from Columbia Gas of Massachusetts who was investigating a gas odor accidentally punctured a high-pressure gas line at the foundation of the building, State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan’s office said in a statement.

Continue reading below

“His examination appears to have been an appropriate distance from where older markings on the sidewalk indicated where the gas line was,” the statement said. “However, the markings were incorrect and his metal probe inadvertently punctured” the line.

The blast, which also displaced hundreds of people, occurred about 5:25 p.m.

On Friday night, a dancer at the club told the Globe that she had smelled gas in the building at 453 Worthington St. over the past four months. The dancer said the club’s owner used deodorizers to mask the odor.

Sheila Doiron, a spokeswoman for Columbia Gas, said Sunday that the company has no record of complaints from the club about gas odors.

“We went back years,” she said. “There were no calls to that premises from anyone [who] said there was a gas odor.”

According to the fire marshal’s statement, investigators are still trying to determine the source of the odor that prompted the utility worker, who was not identified, to respond on Friday.

“The investigative team believes that the gas from the leak entered the building around the pipe and at some point reached the correct explosive level of gas and air, which was ignited by any of many possible ignition sources inside the building,” the statement said.

Doiron said the worker is a long-term employee, but she could not say how long he has been with the company. She said he is an employee in good standing but declined to say whether he will resume his normal duties this week.

“Once he realized the service line was struck, his attention immediately turned to the safety of the people in the facility,” she said, adding that he entered the building to begin evacuating the people.

Daniel D. Kelly, a lawyer for Scores, said in a phone interview that the club is reviewing its legal options. Asked if those options included litigation, he said, “including everything.”

He also said Columbia Gas had taken readings at the club about three months ago and told employees at the time that everything was fine.

Doiron said the company performed a routine inspection of the building’s interior piping over the summer.

“We completed that and we found that the inside piping passed inspection,” she said.

The state Department of Public Utilities is now taking over the investigation, according to Coan’s office.

Reginald Zimmerman,a spokesman for the state agency that oversees the utilities department, said investigators will work to determine whether Columbia Gas had all of the proper safety measures in place at the time of the explosion.

He said the review could take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. He declined to say whether the company could face any sanctions if it is ultimately found to have violated any safety regulations.

Columbia Gas will open a temporary claims center for people affected by the blast on Monday in Room 222 at City Hall from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., the statement said.

Doiron said people affected by the blast can also file a claim by calling 800-869-1876, Ext. 1, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday.

“Our primary emphasis at this point is to take care of the people affected by the situation,” she said.

Among the badly damaged structures is a building on Chestnut Street that houses Square One,a nonprofit children’s center. A message on its answering machine Sunday said the center was closed until further notice.

Sherri Via, owner of 350 Grill Steak House at 350 Worthington Street, said her restaurant is hoping to reopen Monday.

“I think the gas company did a great job cleaning up and helping everybody,” Via said. “Human error happens every day. We’re so blessed that everyone is OK.”

The explosion blasted a section of the city as residents continue to recover from a tornado that tore through in June 2011 causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

In a statement, Mayor Domenic J. Sarno credited Columbia Gas for its “ongoing cooperation during another disaster that has impacted the City of Springfield. I am pleased that they have pledged their full cooperation with all city and state investigatory officials.”

Thomas Walsh, a spokesman for the mayor, said that 115 residential units, a mix of apartments and condominiums, were affected by the blast and hundreds of people were at least temporarily displaced.

Walsh said some residents had been permitted to return to their homes as of Sunday afternoon. Nobody stayed overnight at a shelter the city opened on Friday, he said, though some people came by to receive information about the recovery effort.

Mark McDonald, president of the New England Gas Workers Association, said that workers have accidentally punctured gas lines before with metal probes when investigating leaks, including one case in Groton in 2007 in which a home exploded.

“It’s not a very rare occurrence,” he said.

Globe correspondent Derek J. Anderson contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week