Caledonia, MI – By Taryn Asher, WJRT-TV – They are the faces — the brothers and the sisters. Six young lives lost in a split second and without any warning.
It was Labor Day weekend when six members of the Bryant family, who were visiting their aunt in Mid Michigan, died when her Caledonia Township house exploded.
From the beginning, investigators believed a propane leak caused the devastating blast. But now they’ve narrowed their focus even more onto something that could be inside your home right now.
Investigators are now taking a closer look at the hot water heater that was installed inside that home just days before the blast.
It was Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005, at 11:42 p.m. It was a moment Shiawassee County won’t soon forget.
“There was a house that just blew up,” came one call to Shiawassee Central Dispatch at 911.
“It’s huge,” came another. “It shook my whole building.”
“We have people calling from 10 miles away saying, ‘It was right next door. It just about knocked me down,'” came the voices of dispatchers.
That night, Lori Kuchar and her sister Joyce Bryant — who was visiting from West Virginia — had gone to visit their sister, who lives nearby.
Left at Kuchar’s Caledonia Township home were Bryant’s eight children, ranging in age from 2 to 19. The oldest daughter, Rebekah, and 18-year-old Joseph Moore — a family friend — were left in charge.
“They were watching over the little ones so when we left they were both singing songs,” Kuchar said.
Singing “Amazing Grace” was something Rebekah Kuchar loved to do. In fact, she had just recorded her first CD. But in the time that Lori Kuchar and Bryant were gone, something went wrong.
“When we got there, obviously, when you see no home, our worst fear was ‘The kids are gone,'” Kuchar said.
The house exploded. Six of the eight children left in the home that night died, including Rebekah, 10-year-old Joseph, 9-year-old Nehemia, 7-year-old Martina, 4-year-old David, and the youngest, 2-year-old Isaac.
Two of Bryant’s other children were badly burned but survived, along with family friend Joseph Moore.
From the beginning, investigators say they believed the cause of the deadly explosion was due to a propane leak.
The scene has been cleared now but nearly two months into their investigation authorities have turned their attention to the water heater that was bought days before her home exploded.
Investigators say records from Home Depot indicate Kuchar bought a propane gas water heater on Aug. 31. After it was installed, Kuchar says she noticed the pilot light would not stay lit.
So she says she shut off the water heater along with the furnace and closed off the basement.
“Unless you go down there, it’s going to take a while for it to gradually come up to ground level to the main floor that your going to smell it,” said State Fire Marshall Kathy Taylor.
Over those three days, Taylor says she believes large amounts of liquid propane seeped into the ground. She says she believes gas filled the basement and the smallest spark triggered the blast.
“Poured wall cement showed very a heavy explosion across from the water heater and behind the water heater where it actually blew the wall right in,” Taylor said.
But the theory behind the explosion doesn’t stop there. ABC12 has learned the valve on that water heater may have been the subject of a recall. The valves were made in Mexico by Robert Shaw Controls.
On Aug. 19, Home Depot says they were notified by Robert Shaw Controls that their maybe a potential problem with 178,000 R-110 series valves.
A Home Depot spokesman said right after they learned about the problem, they contacted their stores nationwide to remove water heaters that may contain the valves.
But he says because the company has 2,000 stores across the country, it could take up to a week and a half to remove them all.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 16, the Consumer Product Safety Commission publicly announced a voluntary recall on the valves after it was discovered the valve screws could break, causing gas to leak.
In between that time is when Kuchar purchased her water heater.
“It would have played the role because that’s where the liquid propane would be leaking,” Taylor said.
Now investigators must determine if Kuchar’s water heater featured the recalled valves.
“I saw, for instance, the people that represent the equipment all out at my property so there was some knowledge this was an issue,” Kuchar said.
The only way to know for sure is whether the serial number on those valves matches the number of those targeted in the recall.
A team of experts from around the country hope to determine that in January when they plan to take a look at evidence pulled from the debris and compare it to a water heater identical to the one Kuchar bought.
“We’re not looking to point fingers,” Taylor said. “We just want to know if there’s fault on anyone’s part for it to stop and to make sure there’s no faulty products out there and for this to never happen again.”
Until the cause is determined, Kuchar and her family feel like they are frozen in time to the night of Sept. 3.
“I won’t let them die in vain,” Kuchar said. “There will be good that comes with this. That is my mission.”
In a statement to ABC12, the Robert Shaw Company says — in part — it has been cooperating with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission since Aug. 19 in what it calls a corrective action program.
The program, they say, is limited to the R-110 model valve, and that the company has successfully corrected more than 110,000 valves thus far.
The company also claims that “none of the appliances at the Kuchar home contained any R-110 valves,” and that there have been no incidents involving the recalled R-110 valves.
So how can you tell if the valves on your hot water heater are included in this recall?
The recall involves the Robert Shaw R-110 Series Gas Control Valves manufactured between July 25 and Aug. 14 of this year, with production date codes 5-31 and 5-33.
They were installed on several different brands of hot water heaters. The model and serial number of the valves can be found on the manufacturer’s label on the water heater.
The valves could also be on your water heater if you had it serviced or purchased it after July 25.
If you believe you have an affected water heater, you can call Robert Shaw at 1-888-225-1071. Have the model and serial numbers ready when you call.
They will arrange for a free repair or replacement.