By ZACK KUCHARSKI, The Gazette
As Bev Gartner travels the country and sees houses that use liquid propane, she wonders if the homes have a product she says would have saved the lives of seven of her relatives.
“It goes through my head; I wonder if they have a gas detector. I wonder if they know what it is,” said Gartner, who spent 128 days at University Hospitals while recovering from a Sept. 6, 1999, house explosion that killed three of her sisters, both parents, her brother-in-law and 6-year-old niece.
Gartner was at a family barbecue at brother-in-law Jerry Usovsky’s Richland home on Labor Day 1999. Investigators say Usovsky ruptured a gas line while building a dog pen a day or two before the blast.
The gas seeped into the basement of the home undetected and fueled an explosion the following day. “There was no smell, no anything,” said Gartner, who suffered burns to more than 70 percent of her body.
Awareness of gas detectors is minimal, said attorney Don Beattie, who represented the sisters and other survivors and families in a lawsuit against several propane and appliance companies. During jury selection for the Lennox trial that was settled out of court earlier this week, only one of the 50 potential jurors knew about gas detectors, Beattie said.
Gartner and her sisters, Wanda Countryman of LaCrosse, Wis., and Carol Taylor of Keosauqua, want to raise awareness of the gas detectors and want gas and appliance companies to place more emphasis on use of gas detectors.
Even the sisters, whose father, Dale Countryman, worked for the Michigan- Wisconsin Pipeline Co. for more than 30 years, didn’t know what a gas detector was prior to the blast.
“Sticking a booklet in a door once every two years just doesn’t cut it,” Countryman said of the companies’ efforts to educate users of potential dangers.
Detectors installed in homes would prevent accidents similar to the Richland blast, the sisters say. The detectors, which plug into walls and sound an alarm when elevated levels of gas are sensed, aren’t widely available.
“When we see Wal-Mart selling them, we’ll know we’ve made a difference,” said Wanda Countryman. “People assume if they don’t smell anything, there isn’t a leak. Smell is not a reliable source.”
Propane, or LP gas, has no odor in its natural state. A strong-smelling substance called ethyl mercaptan is added to propane to warn consumers of a leak, but the odor can fade while propane is stored in tanks, according to information from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.Because LP gas, unlike natural gas, is heavier than air, it can move from a leak underground and collect in a house.
Gartner also wants legislation passed that requires regular inspections of tanks and lines into buildings and expands the scope of inspections. She’d also like to see a law that requires that gas detectors be placed in homes, like they are in new homes built in Polk County.
The sisters, who were part of a group of survivors and estates of victims that reached settlements with all eight companies sued, said the companies could have played a role in preventing the blast.
“The only way to get their attention was to hit them where it hurts,” Wanda Countryman said of the lawsuit. “There is still a black cloud that hangs over our family gatherings. Seven people are gone; seven people. We just don’t want to see it happen to any other family.