Blast led to change in tactics, report says

Grand Junction firefighters contend with the fiery aftermath of a gas explosion in this March 19 file photo.



Several changes are in the works since a massive natural gas leak and ensuing explosion and fire demolished two homes on Seventh Street, according to a recently released report by the city of Grand Junction.

No one was killed in the incident, but three people sustained severe burns and soft-tissue injuries and people in 187 surrounding homes, as well as three schools, multiple businesses and a daycare, were evacuated in a 10-block area.

The March 19 incident wasn’t officially cleared until a month and a half later, on May 9, the first time city crews drew negative readings for lingering natural gas in the area. The home at 1752 N. Seventh St. exploded and the home to the south, 1742 N. Seventh St., caught fire and burned to the ground. Siding also burned on one home to the north, 1806 N. Seventh St.

In the 82-page document, city officials recount the initially chaotic scene created when a contractor with Apeiron Utility Construction bored into the ground at the intersection of Seventh Street and Orchard Avenue and breached an intermediate, 6-inch Xcel natural gas line. Emergency responders arrived on the scene to see black smoke, gas bubbling up from manholes and terrified residents running around.

The Grand Junction Fire Department produces an after-action report following major public safety incidents. This report is its second, following a report on the White Hall fire, in which a firefighter was nearly killed attempting to battle the Sept. 15, 2011, blaze at 600 White Ave.

“On a positive note, this has opened up dialogue with Xcel,” Fire Chief Ken Watkins said at a workshop Monday about the Seventh Street gas leak.

Because of the incident, the city now requires any contractor attempting to bore across the sewer system to provide video of the sewer main and its condition immediately after installing new utilities.

Grand Junction reports that Xcel now will treat its intermediate pressure lines like its high pressure lines, that the company is requiring more documentation before utility work is performed, and that a representative from its company, Site Wise, must view work prior to boring.

Grand Junction is facing two lawsuits from victims in the incident, City Manager Rich Englehart said during a meeting with The Daily Sentinel last week.

“I don’t think there’s anything in here that would lead anyone to point a finger at us,” he said.

Englehart said completing the report is a tool for the city to better handle large-scale emergencies in the future.

“We really didn’t want to worry about who was at fault at the onset,” he said. “We had citizens in the community who were absolutely affected. Our response to this was a learning tool for us. We were nervous about letting people back into their homes. I mean, this community just opened up for us.”

City departments also will work on bolstering emergency training and communication. Recommendations from the report include establishing early on in an incident which agency is in command, outfitting responders with phone numbers of all relevant officials, providing additional resources for traffic control, and developing better utility mapping systems.

According to the report, the gas line was breached at 11:39 a.m. March 19, but Xcel workers did not turn off the main natural gas line until 1:55 p.m. Natural gas to the burned homes wasn’t turned off until at 8:48 p.m. because crews could not immediately access the homes.

The city expects to soon post the after-action report to its website, gjcity.org.

City officials interviewed dozens of people employed with the city and other agencies that responded to or were affected by the gas leak and explosion. Here are some excerpts from summaries of those interviews:

From Grand Junction Fire Department firefighters:

■ “When I saw the gas in the sewer, I thought, ‘This doesn’t look good.’ “

■ “It felt like the interior crews were in too long as the exterior signs of fire inside the house didn’t change as quickly as I was expecting. The interior crews were stating they were knocking down fire but the exterior fire was not changing so I knew this was not going well.”

■ “I had a weird feeling while in the interior of the delta one structure. I was thinking, ‘Well, that house exploded so what else will explode?’ “

■ “I think it went well for what we had. There was good command and control, there was no freelancing, and everyone worked together.”

From crews at Persigo Wastewater Treatment Plant:

■ The “scene was unorganized and chaotic. Initial supervisor indicated he saw a lack of excitement from the fire department and did not feel that they understood the potential of the incident. There was a visible gas plume emitting from the manhole and he said he immediately understood the severity of this incident and the underground potential.”

■ “Scene security was not tight enough.”

■ “Crews did not feel safe pulling manhole covers without any protection, no communication between city and private contractors.”

■ “Xcel personnel who are supposed to be the gas experts were saying it was safe to allow people to return to their homes. Persigo personnel felt it was not safe based on the gas concentration levels they were getting with their gas detectors ... Persigo supervisors were placed in a bad position by having to prove to Xcel that they were wrong and it was not safe.”

From police officers with the Grand Junction Police Department:

■ “...Evacuations were going too slowly and should have been done sooner based on the gas in the air and the apparent severity of the breach.”

■ “No one took control but everyone worked together.”

■ “Thought Xcel could have shut off gas sooner to alleviate the danger.”

■ “We need to take these incidents more seriously and not get into a ‘routine’ mode.”


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