Investigators: Gas blasts, detection - KMSP-TV

Investigators: Gas blasts, detection

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About once a day, someone in the metro calls 911 to report a gas leak. Usually, the response is uneventful, but under the right circumstances, a simple leak can cause a devastating explosion.

"The door just blew open. I didn't do anything," Paula Hughes recalled.

If only there had been some kind of alarm, Smith might not had seen such a nightmare unfold.

"My clothes were on fire. The whole room was on fire," she remembered.

Bob Smith's world literally exploded around him.

"I remember being lifted off my feet and then a big orange ball engulfing me," he said.

It was a sudden flash that changed his life forever.

"Why was I spared and the other three died?" Smith asks.

News agencies often cover the aftermath of a natural gas or propane explosion, but the FOX 9 Investigators decided to test what it is like to be in one in order to test out a simple device that can help people escape danger.

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In Minnesota, at least 20 major gas explosions have ripped apart homes and businesses in the past decade. A Ramsey explosion was so powerful, it leveled a brick building like a house of cards and snuffed out three lives in an instant.

"I would not want anyone to go through what I went through," Smith told FOX 9.

Smith told FOX 9 News he survived in the basement, but he didn't escape unscathed.

"My back was fractured. My hands were third-degree burns," he said.

Smith told the FOX 9 Investigators he never smelled anything odd when he came inside.

"There was no odor," he said.

Natural gas has no smell on its own. The rotten egg odor is added as a precaution to alert people to leaks, but the Ramsey leak began outside and underground. The smell was filtered out in the soil before the gas entered the building. No one inside knew they were in danger until static electricity started one victim's hair on fire.

Paula Hughes did smell something moments before a propane explosion blew apart a resort in Duluth a few weeks ago, but it wasn't the rotten egg odor and she didn't know what to make of it.

"I'm lucky to be alive," she said. "It smelled like someone was actually cooking something."

These anecdotes are why the FOX 9 Investigators wanted to test whether a $40 device could detect what noses can't. So, an abandoned farm house outside Eagle Bend, Minn., became an experiment site.

Firefighters and engineers also used the opportunity to get a hands-on lesson on the dynamics of gas leaks and explosions. The test began by filling the home with propane, as if there was a bad connection on the back of the stove.

"We're going to add about two of these 20-plound cylinders," said Chris Brand.

St. Paul Fire Investigator Jamie Novak directed the blast, and the FOX 9 Investigators set up 20 cameras inside and outside the house. Sensors were also put in place to measure the heat and force of any explosion.

The leak also put the gas detector to the test. A hissing sound was the first clue that gas was coming into the house, but it only took a minute and a half for audible alarm and indicator light to warn that something is wrong. At the time, there was nowhere near enough gas inside to cause an explosion.

In a real-life scenario, an alarm is a sign that anyone inside should get out immediately. Once outside, use a cell phone to call 911 or go to a neighbor's house to call.

Safety experts warn against trying to find the gas leak yourself, and they say using a landline inside a house with a leak might provide the spark that sets off a disaster.

It's also important to maintain a safe distance, because even from a vantage point 300 feet away, the shockwave from the blast threw FOX 9 Investigator Jeff Baillon off his balance.

When the dust settled, everything but the kitchen sink was gone. The front door was thrown about 150 feet, and what was left of the mannequin standing near it was tossed even farther.

The sensors inside recorded pressure from the blast that is comparable to a 700 mph wind. The G-forces are the equivalent of dropping a 160-pound person The fireball hit a peak temperature of 2,500 degrees -- almost hot enough to melt steel.

The cameras caught what the blast looked like from inside before they were thrown into the yard. The debris flew father and faster than anyone expected, and that's why gas detectors can be critical. The alarms can be purchased at home improvement stores and various other retailers. Novak recommends placing gas detectors near gas appliances in your home.

One of the most common causes of gas explosions are uncapped lines. According to Jamie Novak, from the St. Paul Fire Department some unused gas lines are left open. This happens when a natural gas appliance is replaced (with electric) or moved. The gas line that leads to nothing can leak gas. Those steel or copper pipes must be properly plugged. Also another safeguard is to make sure there are shut off valves for the gas lines in the same room as gas appliances. Call a qualified gas fitter or contractor if you suspect you have open gas lines or to get shut off valves installed near gas appliances.

ANOTHER REMINDER: If you smell gas got out of the house immediately and call for help from outside of the residence.


The FOX 9 Investigators wish to extend special thanks to the following people and groups in the creation of this story: Special thanks for assistance:

Staples & Eagle Bend Fire Departments
Crane Engineering
Norman & Julie Krause (for donating house)
Minnesota Chapter of International Association of Arson Investigators
Jamie Novak, St. Paul Fire Department
Sensor Electronics Corporation
Fire Cam

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