Wylie, TX- The pre-dawn gas explosion that killed Benny and Martha Cryer still haunts neighbors a year later.
“It wasn’t my responsibility to take care of them, but … it gets to you sometimes,” recalled Sean Willey, who watched helplessly while the elderly couple was trapped under burning debris.
Texas Railroad Commission investigators discovered that a pipe pulled out of its fitting, causing natural gas to leak into the Cryers’ home. They concluded that gas migrated from the gas meter in the alley, through the soil, into the Cryers’ house a few yards away.
The fitting, known as a “nonrestraint” compression coupling, was installed in the late 1970s. Unlike other fittings that are anchored or lock tight around a pipe, the nonrestraint compression couplings attach to pipe using only a rubber seal and have a tendency to pull out, especially in elastic clay soil frequently seen in North Texas.
A WFAA-TV (Channel 8) investigation has found at least 100,000 of the couplings still in service in Dallas and surrounding areas.
At least six North Texas deaths resulted from compression coupling failures beginning with a Keller house explosion in 1980, WFAA-TV has found.
The investigation found that despite the accidents and federal and industry warnings the Texas Railroad Commission has done little the past two decades to ensure the couplings have been removed.
Officials with Atmos Energy, which provides natural gas services to more than 400 cities in North Texas, defended its delivery system. Railroad Commission Safety Director Mary McDaniel said she believes there is not enough evidence to indicate compression couplings are not safe.
Pipeline experts such as Don Deaver, a Houston engineer, said it is known throughout the industry that compression couplings may pose a danger. Manufacturers even warn of a potential “pullout.”
“And this has been known for a long time,” Mr. Deaver said.
Records obtained by WFAA show the Railroad Commission has memos dating back to the early 1980s warning about the pullout potential and the coupling’s limitations, from institutions such as the National Transportation Safety Board and American Gas Association.
The coupling at the Cryer home was installed in 1979 by Lone Star Gas, which previously operated the existing Atmos Energy service lines.
In 1980, the coupling manufacturer warned Lone Star officials that the couplings “will not meet” new federal regulations. But replacing the couplings would be costly. Records indicate that for many years there was no widespread effort to remove them.
Atmos officials said the original equipment was installed properly at the site of the October 2006 Wylie explosion that killed the Cryers. Atmos officials also said that a leak survey conducted a year earlier had found no leaks, and that a Railroad Commission report indicated the leading cause of the accident was damage caused by another utility crew working in the neighborhood.
In addition to the Wylie explosion, several natural gas explosions have been reported in North Texas since 1980:
A 1980 house explosion in Keller left one dead.
A 1998 explosion in Arlington injured three people.
A 2000 explosion at a North Richland Hills home left one dead and another injured.
A 2001 explosion in West Dallas left four people badly burned.
And a May 2007 explosion in Cleburne claimed the lives of Hazel Pawlik and her daughter, Hazel Sanderson. Three others suffered serious burns.
The Railroad Commission recently issued a requirement that companies such as Atmos replace leaking couplings or when the couplings are discovered during maintenance checks.
However, federal safety regulations already require “each segment of pipeline that becomes unsafe” to be replaced or “removed from service.”
Wylie neighbors said they remain shocked no one has been held responsible for the Cryers’ deaths.
“Who’s minding the store? Who cares about the lives of these people?” Pam Willey said. “How many Texans die before somebody cares?”