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For the week of Nov. 3, 1999 through Nov. 9, 1999

Gas explosion in Elkhorn destroys two homes, injures three people

Gas technician Dave Nelson of Hailey treated at University of Utah burn unit


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

Flames engulfed two homes in the Sunrise Subdivision following a gas explosion. Fire officials and neighbors say it's remarkable nobody was killed. An investigation is continuing. (Express photo by Willy Cook)

A natural gas explosion demolished two houses in Elkhorn last Wednesday and injured three people, one seriously.

The explosion at 103 Sunrise Dr., in the Sunrise subdivision, ignited a neighboring house, which was destroyed by the blaze, and damaged a third home with flying debris.

Fire officials and neighbors who witnessed the violent chain of events said it was remarkable that no one was killed.

The explosion routed neighbors from their homes and produced a flurry of 911 emergency calls. A nearby resident raced into one of the burning homes looking for victims.

"I heard this horrendous explosion, like someone clapping their hands over your ears," said neighbor Susan Parkinson, 53, who was in her backyard. "I looked up and saw the roof flying through the air."

Dave Nelson of Hailey, an Intermountain Gas Co. technician who was working to stop a gas leak between 101 and 103 Sunrise, was burned on his arms, back and face in the wake of the blast.

Nelson, 47, was taken to the Wood River Medical Center in Sun Valley, then air lifted later Wednesday to the University of Utah Medical Center’s burn unit in Salt Lake City.

A hospital nurse attending to Nelson said on Tuesday his condition was "satisfactory" and that it was expected he would go home "in a few days." She said Nelson had second-degree burns on his arms and back and first-degree burns on his face.

"It happened so fast," Nelson said during a telephone interview from his hospital bed.

Nelson said he’s not sure what caused the explosion. The blast, he said, threw him to the ground, briefly knocking him unconscious.

"When I came to, everything was on top of me," he said.

Homeowner Ciceli Nicoly and her employee, Luanne Evans, of Shoshone, who were both inside the house at 101 Sunrise during the blast, were also injured. They were treated and released from the Wood River Medical Center in Sun Valley.

Evans said she called the 911 emergency telephone number when she smelled gas around 11 a.m. However, she claimed, the phone rang six or eight times before she hung up.

She also claimed to have called from a cell phone about half an hour later, following the explosion, but said the 911 line was busy. She said she stopped trying to get through because she heard sirens.

Neither the Blaine County 911 call center in Hailey nor the city of Ketchum 911 center recorded any emergency calls at approximately 11 a.m.—when Evans said she made her initial call—according to both centers’ telephone logs examined by the Idaho Mountain Express.

The city of Ketchum does not participate in the Blaine County 911 emergency call network.

The first two calls received by the Blaine County 911 system reporting an explosion were recorded at 11:33 a.m., according to the log book.

A woman said "her house shook," recalled a county 911 operator who took one of the calls. As many as 50 emergency line calls followed, the dispatcher added.

Firefighters from Ketchum, Sun Valley, Elkhorn, Hailey and Blaine County worked for nearly an hour to bring the flames at 101 Sunrise under control, Sun Valley Fire Chief Jeff Carnes said. He said firefighters remained on the scene until early evening to prevent the blaze from re-igniting.

Carnes estimated damage to the homes at $1.5 million.

Neighbor Marc Mickelson said he saw the explosion send a door flying, then saw Nelson run into the street yelling for someone to call 911.

Mickelson said he touched Nelson’s shoulder and that his shirt came apart in his hand, the material apparently damaged by the flames.

Mickelson, a building contractor, said he then ran through the burning house at 101 Sunrise, looking for victims, but found none. Then, he said, he discovered Nicoly and Evans sitting on a hill behind the house.

Nicoly was "just in total shock," he said.

"I knew the other one was a rental" and that no one was in it, he said of the house at 103 Sunrise, which was leveled by the explosion. "So I wasn’t too worried about it."

Flames, smoke and water swirled through the air as firefighters worked rapidly to put down the blaze and to make sure no victims remained to be rescued.

Meanwhile, neighbors walking along the street marveled at couch cushions, doorknobs, window frames and potentially deadly flying building timbers strewn along the block.

Seemingly oblivious to the bedlam, Mike Shetler, 46, of Shoshone, sat staring through the fractured windshield of his tree removal truck parked down the street.

Shetler said he had been using hydraulic spades mounted on the back of his truck to transplant trees at 101 Sunrise when he hit a gas line at around 11 a.m. He said he immediately shut down his equipment and called the gas company.

After Nelson, the gas company technician, arrived, Shetler said the two of them worked for about 10 or 15 minutes to stop the leak before the blast occurred.

"It blew me, I don’t know how many feet," Shetler said.

Shetler’s watch band was torn, but otherwise, he said, he was uninjured, though he did have trouble recalling his age and telephone number when asked for this information by a reporter.

Shetler said he has never hit a gas line in his four years in the tree removal business.

What’s more, he said the "dig lines" the utility companies spray painted on the ground to show where utilities were buried were incorrectly positioned.

Shetler said he works within a two- or three-foot margin of error with his equipment.

"I know it was mismarked," he said of the lines.

Then fearful that he would be blamed for the accident, he said, "They’ll probably take everything I’ve got."

Shetler’s wife, Carol, who said she received a call from her husband immediately after the explosion, was visibly shaken when she arrived at the blast scene.

"He’s lucky to be alive, that’s the important thing," she said. "I was so surprised to hear this happen, because he’s refused and delayed jobs. This is always his worst fear."

Emergency medical technicians examined and released Shetler at the accident site.

#

By Monday afternoon, fire investigators agreed that gas leaking from a three-quarter-inch plastic gas line cut by Shetler’s truck between 101 and 103 Sunrise fueled the blast.

"Those houses are pretty close together," Sun Valley Fire Chief Carnes said, "only about 20 feet" apart.

Carnes said it’s likely gas leaked from the severed line into the four-and-a-half-foot-tall crawl space underneath 103 Sunrise through a vent located near the ground. He said the vent was as little as 10 feet away from the cut line and that either the furnace, water heater or some other appliance ignited the gas.

A furnace with an electronic ignition could have allowed the crawl space to fill up with gas, and then ignited the gas when the thermostat—sensitive to a dropping temperature—switched on, Carnes said.

The electronic ignition could have sparked the explosion, the fire chief said.

Investigators likely won’t know what kind of appliances the house had, however, until the rubble is cleared away this week, he said.

It’s also possible the gas entered through an open window, he added, though that’s unlikely because the owners were not living at the house and the windows probably were closed.

Carnes said that in an accident of this type, where it doesn’t appear likely there will be criminal charges, he is concerned only with where the gas came from and how it got inside the house.

Now, Carnes said, it’s up to the insurance companies to investigate whether a malfunctioning appliance is to blame for igniting the gas.

Mike Huntington, vice president of marketing and external affairs for Intermountain Gas Co., said Monday afternoon he had no specific information about his company’s investigation.

But he did say, in response to questions, that a house exploding is "not a normal occurrence," which is "why the investigation is so important to us."

He said the gas company would "look at everything" during its investigation.

Eldon Book, the Boise-based gas company’s vice president of operations, said buried gas lines contain a locating wire to which a transmitter is attached so that the lines can be found with a handheld receiver.

He said maps also help locate buried lines.

"We try to get as close as we can [to the gas lines]," he said. But when asked how accurate the methods are, he added, "I have no idea."

The gas company’s safety and training manager was not available for comment. For his part, Huntington said gas technicians undergo "a lengthy training" process.

Carnes said that technician Nelson has serviced hundreds of broken gas lines, and that many times he has accompanied him.

Almost always, the situations are not dangerous, he said, and "you get a little complacent."

He said last Wednesday’s explosion and fire could result in changes to local building codes and to the way gas technicians and firefighters are trained to deal with gas problems.

"That’s what the investigation is for," Carnes said. "Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here."

 

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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.