Pacific Creek, WY – By Martin Reed, Jackson Hole Daily
Investigators determined Thursday a propane buildup ignited by a basement electric water heater caused an explosion that destroyed a Pacific Creek house and killed two women.
An unidentified third woman who was seriously injured by the explosion that happened at about 5:20 p.m. Wednesday remained in critical condition.
Teton County Coroner Bob Campbell identified the victims as Lauren Ernest Gentle, 52, and Carol Ann Bailey, 51, both of Houston. Gentle is a co-owner of the home on Braman Road at the boundary of Grand Teton National Park about 40 miles north of Jackson.
Bailey and the unidentified woman flew to Jackson on Wednesday afternoon from Texas and traveled to Gentles home, according to authorities. The three women were the only ones found at the home.
Authorities sifting through the charred debris Thursday pinpointed the electric water heater as the source after suspecting the buildup in the basement. Investigators believe the gas settled in the basement and crawl space before igniting.
There was a gas leak in the basement of the home, Palmer said in the statement. We are still working to determine the origin of the leak, but we have determined that the explosion was ignited by a spark from the electric water heater.
Palmer and six firefighters worked at the scene surrounded by twisted sheets of metal roofing and shattered logs. The fires lingering smell accompanied wisps of smoke rising from smoldering pockets of debris in one area of the site.
The explosion ripped apart the log home and sent debris flying as far as 350 yards from the site. Small pieces of pink insulation covered nearby 40-foot trees and a swath of the surrounding snow-filled fields; a window frame landed about 100 yards from the home.
Aside from the charred remains, very little remained of the home that hours earlier occupied the parcel of now-blackened snow: a couple of throw pillows, a burned metal bowl containing ashes, a stone fireplace missing a chimney and a cement foundation in which the basement was located. Scattered personal effects underscored lives suddenly torn apart; spools of fishing leader, a sponge, a ski, a snowshoe.
The explosion left a nearby 1,000-gallon propane tank, a shed containing fire wood and a guest house relatively undamaged.
Investigators focused on the basement because they found the homes walls and ceilings among the debris, but not any floor joists. That indicated the explosion likely originated from below the floor and went upward, Palmer said.
Also, because propane is heavier than air, it may have settled in the basement without anyone smelling the gas, the chief said.
At the time of the explosion, the three women were in an area of the home between the fireplace and a set of double doors leading outside. What we have not determined is if they were all entering the building, exiting the building or if its coincidental, Palmer said. Its possible they smelled gas and tried to leave.