Westmoreland County, PA – By Jennifer Bails


Saturday, August 28, 2004

First came the noise, a roar so loud and terrifying it sounded as though a jetliner had crashed into their bedroom. Then the ceiling and roof caved in. Next came fire. After, there was pain and fear.

The date was March 22, 2000. That afternoon, a natural gas explosion leveled the Westmoreland County home of Janice and Albert Greco, of Hempfield.

“We were actually asleep, and I never smelled anything and my husband didn’t, either,” said Janice Greco, 63. “All I know is that the house blew up with us in it.”

Since 1998, at least eight major natural gas explosions — some of them fatal and all of them injury-causing — have struck homes and apartment buildings in Western Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Last Saturday, John Rapavi, 49, of Ross, was burned when his house blew up after a gas leak that authorities blamed on a rain-weakened pipeline. Rapavi was released Wednesday from Mercy Hospital’s Trauma and Burn Center. The PUC and Equitable Gas Co. are investigating the incident.

A federal report issued in the explosion of the Grecos’ home found that a subcontractor working on an underground cable project had struck a mismarked gas line that morning. The subsequent gas leak resulted in an inferno that collapsed the roof of the Grecos’ home onto their bed and left the couple badly burned. The house next to theirs on Patricia Drive also was destroyed.

The Grecos never imagined when they stretched out for a quick nap four years ago that they would be awakened by a near-deadly blast.

“You just react out of sheer fright, trauma and shock, and you try to get out,” Janice Greco said. “My husband literally had to drag me out the back door, but when I reached for his right hand, it wasn’t a hand. It was just black, charred flesh. We were well on our way to being dead.

“That house was our dream come true,” she said. “And it was gone in the blink of an eye.”

It is impossible to predict when and where such explosions will occur, but there are steps homeowners should take to protect themselves, according to petroleum scientists and natural gas experts.

Natural gas in its purest form is almost pure methane, a combustible fossil fuel found in underground reservoirs.

In Pennsylvania, there are about 2.6 million residential natural gas customers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Natural gas can accumulate to dangerous levels inside a house when it seeps from inactive wells or abandoned coal mines that weren’t capped properly, said Kashayar Aminian, a professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering at West Virginia University.

This happened last year on Chestnut Street in Bridgeville, where an old gas well began to leak, resulting in a home explosion that sent three people to the hospital with burns.

Most accidents occur when a contractor or weekend do-it-yourselfer dents or otherwise damages a gas line while working underground and doesn’t report the incident to the gas company, Aminian said.

The damaged line eventually can corrode and leak natural gas into houses, he said.

The odds of an excavator moving something other than dirt are becoming greater because of the growing network of telephone and Internet cables, power lines, and cable TV lines snaking underground, said Mark Sokalski, a forensic chemical engineer with Peters-based KMS Engineering Consultants Inc. who investigates the cause and origin of home explosions.

Under state law, contractors and residents must notify and get permission from the Pennsylvania One Call System Inc. at least three days before they begin excavating with power tools.

This West Mifflin-based nonprofit agency then notifies municipalities, hospitals and utilities to mark the location of their lines in the affected area.

The 24-hour hot line doesn’t prevent operator error. Excavators can still damage gas lines, either knowingly or unknowingly.

“If I see anything being dug up, I totally panic still,” Greco said. “I tell my kids, just get out of the house. Just run.”

The most common route for leaking gas to seep into a home is through the sewer system, Sokalski said.

All homes, especially those built before 1970, should have their sewers properly vented through the roof to allow gas to escape, Sokalski said.

To protect against natural gas explosions, Sokalski also said that homeowners should replace steel pipes with more durable polyethylene pipes. This is especially important, he said, in areas such as Southwest Pennsylvania, where temperatures range from above 90 degrees to below freezing. This puts added stress on pipes, which expand and contract in hot and cold weather.

Other precautions Sokalski recommends include sealing foundation cracks with caulking or mortar; making sure natural gas appliances have sediment traps or “drip legs” to prevent clogging; and replacing copper flexible connectors to gas appliances with long-lasting stainless steel lines.

“Except under extreme circumstances, if your house is plumbed properly, then gas should dissipate to open areas outside your home and you should not have explosions,” he said.

People should also know how to react if they smell natural gas, Sokalski said.

Methane is odorless, colorless and tasteless. Before it is sent to the pipelines and storage tanks, it is mixed with a sulfur-containing chemical called mercaptan to give it a distinct, unpleasant odor, almost like rotten eggs.

If you smell natural gas, you should open doors or windows and avoid producing any fire or spark, Sokalski said. If the odor is strong enough, you should evacuate the building immediately, go to a neighbor’s house and call the utility company, he said.

Four years after their home exploded, the Grecos are trying to rebuild their lives in a condominium just several blocks away.

Miraculously, Albert Greco, a 66-year-old retired Port Authority bus driver, didn’t lose his hand, although he and his wife have long-term medical problems from their burns.

Recovery also has been an emotional struggle for their family.

Janice Greco can remember the smell of her hair and head burning as she tried to escape. Her four grown children, none home at the time of the explosion, were especially traumatized because they almost lost both parents at once.

Last October, six companies — among them Peoples Natural Gas Co., based in Pittsburgh, and AT&T Corp. — agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the couple several months after the explosion. The amount of the settlement was sealed, according to Pittsburgh attorney James R. Duffy, who represented the Grecos.

“It has taken us a very long time to cope,” Janice Greco said. “When you’re in a deep sleep, and you’re literally blown out of bed, it changes your life, no doubt. You decide that material things aren’t worth a hoot and to just live your life, to enjoy it. I thank God every day I’m alive.”