Wayne, MI- A Consumers Energy technician investigated but didn’t detect a reported gas leak nearly three hours before an explosion killed two and seriously injured a third man, company officials say.
The acknowledgement comes as investigators pore through the rubble of the Wm. C. Franks furniture store, sifting for clues of the Wednesday blast and trying to determine whether Consumers Energy had ample warning about the leak suspected of causing it.
Janice Riley, 46, said she detected the gas during an early morning walk with her dog, Ava, and phoned the utility just after 6 a.m. “I called almost immediately,” said Riley, who lives east of the store. “Somebody came out, he checked the area.”
That technician couldn’t find a leak and left, a spokeswoman for Consumers said. Then, after another call, a second Consumers technician arrived at 8 a.m. and did smell gas. He called for a “gas sniffer” vehicle equipped with monitors that would help pinpoint the leak.
The explosion occurred, however, before any further investigation could take place, spokeswoman Debra Dodd said.
Now, as the city mourns the dead and cleans up the mess, some wonder whether more could have been done to detect the leak and shut off a line, perhaps averting the tragedy.
“If somebody called at 6 o’clock, that’s three hours (before the blast),” said Mike Hiveley, who was the second person to report a possible gas leak.
The response to the complaints will likely be part of the investigation, said Judy Palnau, spokeswoman for the Michigan Public Service Commission which regulates utilities and is the lead investigatory agency in the furniture store explosion.
Agency staffers have already been working in Wayne, Palnau said, and will work with Consumers to determine the cause of the explosion which occurred off a 2-inch steel line. That’s a common size servicing residential areas.
“I’m sure they’ll be looking at everything that needs to be looked at,” she said.
Palnau said she was unaware of any questions by the agency regarding the integrity of Consumers’ pipelines.
On Thursday, the two victims recovered from the wreckage were identified as James Zell, 64, and Leslie Machniak, 54, both from Westland.
Autopsies indicated they died of multiple injuries and their deaths were accidental, according to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office.
The results suggest they died from the building’s collapse, not from the resulting fire, said Albert Samuels, the medical examiner’s chief investigator.
“Basicallythe force of the building collapsing and the fact that it fell on top of them, this caused them to have multiple injuries,” Samuels said. “There’s nothing indicating they burned or anything like that.”
The Wednesday morning explosion demolished the longstanding furniture store on Wayne Road near Glenwood and sent violent reverberations as far as five miles away. It also seriously injured the store owner, Paul Franks, who remains at the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center in critical condition.
Authorities suspect that a natural gas leak led to the explosion.
“With the information we have, the explosion was not intentionally set,” Samuels said.
As cleanup continued Thursday, with Wayne Road still blocked and mounds of debris piling up behind the store, Riley remained shaken.
Riley said the technician she talked to said he smelled gas but didn’t find any leaks in her home. He told her, she said, that he would send more people to check. Dodd could not confirm whether that technician made such a call.
“I did what I was supposed to do,” Riley said Thursday. “I wish there was some way to prevent it from happening but I called immediately.”
To Hiveley, who lives a few doors east of Riley, there was nothing subtle about the smell. It hit him as he went to his garage to have a morning cigarette with his coffee. It was so strong his wife said it hurt her eyes.
She, too, called Consumers, dialing at 7:40 a.m.
“It was almost as if it was coming in waves,” he said.
Dodd said Consumers gets reports of gas leaks almost every day and technicians have a set of steps they must take with each of them. They first go to the home or business of the call and verify the address and then, if someone is home, check inside first, looking at appliances to detect any problems. If no leaks are found inside, they’ll go around the structure.
If a technician detects a leak inside, they can cut off gas at the outside meter. But if the leak is found outside, they have to call in distribution crews to come and handle it.
Dodd said Consumers will also investigate the matter and look at how it responded to the calls from Riley and Hiveley.
“We’ll be reviewing all the steps that were taken (by) our employees,” she said.
A few hours after the blast, Consumers shut off a gas main east of the store and advised residents to evacuate their homes. About 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, crews in the area detected gas in the alley behind the store, prompting additional evacuations farther south, including City Hall, a quarter-mile from the blast site.
Hiveley said he knew instantly that the explosion that shook his house as he shaved was directly related to the foul odor he smelled more than an hour earlier. Afterward, he rushed down the street and saw the damage.
“It’s horrible,” he said.