Shattered neighborhood tries to move on

CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel Wreckage of two neighboring homes that were destroyed by a natural gas explosion in March 2013 can still be seen in the 1700 block of North Seventh Street.

One year ago last week, Carol Du Kett-Cotts had a feeling something awful was about to happen. For a couple hours, the “rotten egg” stench of natural gas in her neighborhood grew so rank she stepped out into her front yard that faces busy Seventh Street. Less than 10 minutes later, the home two doors to the north blew up, the college students living there “hurtled out of the house,” she recalled.

In a daze, three young men with burns on their faces and arms staggered to the yard where Du Kett-Cotts stood.

“It was pretty traumatic,” she said solemnly Thursday from her sunny porch at the nearby Beach House Apartments. “It’s not something you forget.”

For the past year, the view from her back window shows the same splintered and charred remains of the former side-by-side homes at 1752 and 1742 N. Seventh Street. It’s much of the same scene firefighters saw as the last firetruck pulled away after the explosion, March 19, 2013.

While the scorched grounds and the burned trees still cast an eerie pall over the immediate neighborhood, changes are underway. In August and September, Colorado Mesa University purchased the properties.

On Thursday, the university was granted approval by the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment to begin asbestos removal, a process which should take about 10 days. Grande River Environmental completed the asbestos abatement plan and is contracting with Excel Environmental to conduct the work, according to CMU spokeswoman Dana Nunn.

Homes the university purchases in the older neighborhoods typically have asbestos issues, and the university is accustomed to dealing with it, Nunn said.

“My understanding is part of the delay is you have to wait on the weather,” Nunn said. “Part of the dust control is wetting down the property.”

Nunn said she didn’t know whether or not the property would be rebuilt or if it will add to the university’s inventory of purchased homes for vacant land for future university expansion.

“We kind of share the frustration of the neighbors,” Nunn said, about the prolonged timeline of the cleanup.

In the past year, lawsuits have been swirling over who is to blame for the destruction.

Three victims in the incident, Roberto Lopez, Jordan Pierson and Kolby Gimmerson, have lodged lawsuits against the city; Xcel Energy; the city-hired contractor, Apeiron Utility Construction LLC; and Safe Site, an agency that locates utility lines. The city has publicly claimed it is not liable.

The three college students were blown out of their rental property at 1752 N. Seventh St. The explosion from that home incinerated the home next door, 1742 N. Seventh St.

Natural gas was released into the sewer system after a city-hired construction worker with Apeiron was boring into the intersection at Seventh Street and Orchard Avenue, working on a project to update traffic lights at the intersection.

A motions hearing on the civil case is slated for Aug. 19 in Mesa County District Court.

Grand Junction Fire Department Chief Ken Watkins said the incident has served as a learning tool, prompting the city to consider developing its own emergency team. The city department formerly had referred to Mesa County’s emergency plan, but as a result of the explosion and other major emergency incidents, the city is developing its own plan.

“Now we look at emergency operations on a bigger picture,” Watkins said, as opposed to training for specific incidents.

The city also compiled an after-action report, detailing the good and bad of their emergency response. City officials recently created a video outlining their response to the explosion and fire and plan on sharing the media with officials in other municipalities.

Evacuations included residents of 187 homes, students of nearby schools and workers in businesses in a 10-block radius.

Emergency maneuvers and calls to residents went out almost immediately. The city paid for some residents to stay in local hotels during the evacuation and local businesses and relief agencies stepped up to provide food and other amenities for displaced residents. For weeks, city workers monitored the gas levels in the area, but it wouldn’t be until a month and a half later that city workers drew negative readings for lingering amounts of natural gas in the area.

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 and that the company is requiring more documentation before utility work is performed.

“Thankfully we didn’t have any deaths,” Watkins said. “We’re kind of always pinching ourselves about that.”

Staff writer Emily Shockley contributed to this report.


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