IA City, IA – By Erik Gable, Ledger assistant news editor
When professional tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1994, it drew public attention to the threat posed by the colorless, odorless gas.
Carol Taylor, Bev Gartner and Wanda Fillner, the three sisters who lost seven members of their family in the Labor Day 1999 liquid propane explosion at the Richland home of Jerry and Juanita Usovsky, hope their family’s ordeal will spur people who use gas in their homes to buy a detector for that as well.
After the explosion, investigators determined the propane leak started when Jerry Usovsky drove a post into the ground while erecting a dog pen for his daughters’ new puppy. In the process he nicked a gas line, which was only 4 inches deep instead of the 18 inches required by state law. The propane seeped through the soil and pooled up the basement, where it finally ignited.
The sisters say they aren’t trying to convince people not to use gas. In fact, Gartner and Fillner use natural gas in their homes, and Taylor uses propane. They just want people to take a few precautions and arm themselves with the knowledge required to use gas safely.
The biggest thing the sisters want to bring to people’s attention is the fact that gas detectors are available, and that they only cost about $50.
“We didn’t even know that a gas detector existed before this happened to our family,” said Gartner.
Fillner said many people think their carbon monoxide detector will protect them against propane or natural gas leaks as well. Although there are some detectors on the market that cover all three, that’s not necessarily the case.
An odorant is added to natural gas and liquid propane as a safety precaution. However, Gartner said, that odor can fade. It also can be absorbed into soil or concrete, and it can be masked by cooking odors. Older people sometimes have a reduced sense of smell, as can people with asthma, people suffering from a cold and people who smoke.
“It’s critical that they have a redundant, backup warning device,” said Fillner.