Pittsburgh, PA – By Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A complaint by the state Public Utility Commission against Equitable Gas Co. describes several failures and oversights by the company that laid the groundwork for a 2004 house explosion in Ross that severely injured the homeowner.
The commission’s law bureau claims Equitable Gas committed 11 violations of state and federal law in connection with the incident and called for a fine of at least $320,000.
In a written response, Equitable denied any violations and placed blame for the homeowner’s injuries on the victim himself and police and fire officials who left the scene prior to the blast.
The explosion happened Aug. 21 in the 300 block of Jacks Run Road, where John Rapavi, 51, lived. Gas company officials and emergency responders had been called to the area that morning by reports of a strong odor of natural gas along the road. Mr. Rapavi’s home was evacuated.
Around 9:45 a.m., Mr. Rapavi returned to his home. No police or fire officials were there to stop him, and Equitable officials were also absent, having left the scene to close valves.
When Mr. Rapavi flipped a light switch, the house exploded. The electricity had never been shut off. Mr. Rapavi was seriously burned.
Although Mr. Rapavi’s actions directly caused the explosion, an investigation showed the ultimate culprit to be a broken coupling on a 16-inch gas main that failed because of a landslide.
Equitable was first alerted to possible problems along Jacks Run Road 19 days before the explosion when a resident — not Mr. Rapavi — called to warn the utility company that a landslide had occurred, according to the complaint.
A series of inspections by gas company officials followed, as did another complaint about a shift on the hillside. Weekly inspections were recommended, but, the complaint alleges, were not conducted.
“The allegations about all the events preceding the explosion are just, in my mind, horrific. To know that they had all these opportunities from all the occurrences to stop this from happening and failed to act causes great concern,” Mr. Rapavi’s attorney, Daniel B. McLane, said yesterday. “Clearly, it was absolutely avoidable.”
Among the violations of the public utility code cited in the complaint are:
Installing a coupling that could not withstand the stress of movement on the pipe caused by the landslide.
Failing to take “all practical steps” to protect its pipes from a landslide.
Not filing a “safety related condition report” for the main line in the landslide although the condition was found Aug. 2, 19 days before the explosion.
Another key claim the report makes concerns a dispute between Equitable and emergency responders. Police officers and firefighters left the scene before the explosion, saying they were told by gas company officials that everything was under control.
“Based on the experts from the gas company saying, ‘We don’t need you,’ we left,” Ross police Detective William Barrett said. “We follow the guidance of experts in that particular area.”
The complaint states that “Equitable personnel did not adequately communicate with the emergency responders at the leak site before the explosion since Equitable personnel released the emergency responders from the site soon after the company’s personnel arrived and before conditions were safe.”
In its response, Equitable said it did not release any emergency responders from the scene. The company claims that “the fire and police personnel, in failing to maintain and enforce the evacuation, and Mr. Rapavi, in entering the house without confirming that it was safe to do so, combined to cause the explosion.”
Upon being evacuated from his home, Mr. Rapavi was given no follow-up instructions by anyone regarding returning to his residence, Mr. McLane said.
“Everybody from Equitable left, and there was no sign to keep him from his home, and he returned not knowing any better,” Mr. McLane said.