Advertisement

Archive for Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Gasoline leak suspected in blaze

Investigators check nearby stations in ‘precautionary’ move

May 2, 2006

Advertisement

The Sunday morning fire that destroyed a five-apartment house at 838 La., leaving at least two residents nearly destitute, may have been caused by gasoline seeping into the basement from the underground tank of a nearby filling station.

Officials canvassed the neighborhood Monday afternoon and evening warning residents to call 911 if they smell gasoline.

"This is precautionary," said Mark Bradford, chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical. "The area appears to be safe."

State and local officials Monday confirmed gasoline had been found in a series of soil samples taken between the house and Presto Convenience Store No. 25, 602 W. Ninth St.

The store, which sells gasoline, is across the street and west of the house.

"A significant amount of gasoline was found" in a sample taken from a trench dug on the eastern edge of the store property, said Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman Sharon Watson.

Gasoline fumes poured from the trench during a 3 p.m. news conference with Watson and Bradford. Workers used a backhoe to dig the trench.

But it's too early, she said, to connect the store's underground tank with the fire.

"At this point we don't know where the source of the leak is," Watson said Monday evening.

Watson noted that two other convenience stores are nearby. Both sell gasoline.

Also, city directories from the mid-1970s show a gas station was once on the corner lot across Ninth Street now occupied by Images salon, 511 W. Ninth St.

"There are a number of potential sources," Watson said.

Smell of gasoline

Occupants of the house have said they smelled gasoline after being awakened by the smoke.

"It started in the basement," said Eric Powell, a tenant in one of the first-floor apartments. "Smoke was just pouring out of the grate in the floor."

Bradford confirmed gasoline was found in the sewer system and was "the key culprit" in the apartment house fire.

It's possible the evening's heavy rains overflowed the sump pump in the house, sending gasoline-laced water across the basement floor. Pilot lights in the water heaters may have ignited the fumes.

"Gasoline may have been a contributing factor to the incident we had," Bradford said.

Since the fire, Bradford said, the area's sewer has been "flushed." Afterward, he said, gasoline was not detected in the sewer.

Residents may call the fire department843-0250 to ask to have their homes checked for fumes.

"We're going to remain on the scene," Bradford said.

Workers at Presto Convenience Store declined to be interviewed. Attempts to reach a spokesman at the corporate headquarters in Andover were unsuccessful.

State health officials asked the nearby Diamond Shamrock filling station to cease gasoline sales while their records were examined, Watson said. Sales resumed Monday.

Sales also were stopped Monday at Presto while KDHE reviewed records there.

Much of the burned house was razed Monday.

"As it was, the structure wasn't safe to enter," Bradford said. "The walls were bowed."

Also, he said, the basement was full of water. "There's probably 7,000 gallons in there," Bradford said.

Because of the gasoline, the water is considered a hazardous material requiring special handling.

Stories of survival

Former resident Virginia Tomich said it was a good thing she didn't take the medicine that helps her sleep on Sunday.

If she had, she might not be alive.

"I woke up at about 3 a.m., and the house was just engulfed in smoke," she said Monday, recalling how she discovered the fire that gutted her apartment early Sunday. "It was so thick I couldn't see my hand in front of my face."

Tomich, 35, and her boyfriend Powell, 28, lived in one of the five apartments in the older home. They had moved in Friday night.

"It just doesn't seem right," Powell said. "You work hard, you save your money, you buy new things and then, in two days, it all burns up."

The couple escaped with the clothes they were wearing and their two cats, Sabbath and Sebastian.

Powell said he and Tomich called the fire department and rushed outside and upstairs to warn the neighbors. Only Florence Gallagher, 77, was at home.

"I was banging on her door when the police arrived," Tomich said. "We all rushed out of there."

Standing outside, she said, the house reeked of gasoline.

Gallagher, who had lived in the house for 15 years, is thought to be living with a daughter since the fire.

"We were standing outside the house this morning (Monday) and her daughter - I don't remember her name - came up and thanked (Tomich) for saving her mother's life," Powell said. "That right there made all that we lost worth it."

Attempts to reach Gallagher and her daughter Monday were unsuccessful.

Also displaced by the fire were Glenn Baughman, Curtis Johnson and Jim Luhning. None of the house's tenants was injured.

Powell and Tomich recently moved from St. Louis to Lawrence to be close to Tomich's four daughters, who live with their father and stepmother.

Starting over

The American Red Cross gave Powell and Tomich each $130 for clothing, a $150 voucher good at Hy-Vee and a three-day stay at the Lawrence Holidome.

The couple expect to pay a month's rent on a new, one-bedroom apartment this morning.

"That wiped out the savings account : gone!" Powell said.

They've asked for a refund on the deposit and rent for their destroyed apartment - about $900.

"We'll give them a refund as soon as the insurance company says we can," said Lois Capps, whose husband, Lee, manages the property. "We've been told to wait until the investigation is complete."

The process, Capps said, is expected to take about a week.

Meanwhile, Tomich said she's convinced she and Powell were meant to lose their possessions.

"I believe God put us there to save (Gallagher's) life," she said. "We lived right below her, we'd been there two days. Why else would that have happened? There was no one else there."

Cat reported missing

Curtis Johnson's cat, Lilith, is missing.

"I lived in one first-floor apartment in the back of the house that burned," Johnson said Monday. "I wasn't there Sunday. My girlfriend and I had gone to Oklahoma for the weekend."

Johnson had left Lilith, a 7-year-old Siamese, in the apartment. "I haven't seen her," he said. "She was a nervous cat to begin with. I'm hoping she got out."

Anyone who sees Lilith is asked to call Johnson's cell phone, 218-1351.

"It won't do any good to try to catch her," he said. "But if they call me, she might come to me."

838 Louisiana

Comments

Kelly Powell 8 years, 7 months ago

If it was leaking gas from the presto station these people will be sipping tropical drinks on a beach after they sue thebutt off the company.

Sigmund 8 years, 7 months ago

Suing someone is now The Great American Dream

OldEnuf2BYurDad 8 years, 7 months ago

FACT: Litigation is the #1 industry in Mississippi. It's one of the reasons why a number of financial institutions will not open locations in that state. Suing yankee-owned businesses is big business there.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 8 years, 7 months ago

What's the price tag for pain, suffering and loss of life for a cat? Or would that be more of a personal property damage claim?

Baille 8 years, 7 months ago

It's property damage, but the total loss must be reduced by the succulent deliciousness of the remaining meat. And no one will be going to any tropical beach on this one. Don't you "tort reformers" know how damages are defined and awarded in civil cases?

Of course not. You have never lost a limb or a loved one to the negligence of others. Your livelihood has not been taken from you by the carelessness of an inattentive driver or an alcoholic doctor. Probably learned all you need to know from the McDonald's coffee case. (Which one? There was more than one? Reduced award? What's that?) Too bad. It is so hard to have a productive conversation with most tort reform advocates because they have not taken the time to research the issue.

Mari Aubuchon 8 years, 7 months ago

Sympathy: A feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another; compassion or commiseration.

Just in case y'all weren't familiar with the concept.

GardenMomma 8 years, 7 months ago

You can't get pain and suffering for pets, sadly. But hopefully the cat ran out and will be found hiding in a neighbor's yard or somewhere.

However, if gas was leaking from any of the nearby underground gas storage tanks, how long was this going on and how did the gas station(s) not notice that their inventory of gas was off? And if it was from an old storage tank left behind from the 1970's, how much contaminated the ground before finding its way into the basement? Has this gasoline leaked into the groundwater?

Prydain 8 years, 7 months ago

If it could seep into a basement groundwater is almost certainly contaminated.

mefirst 8 years, 7 months ago

Excellent post, Mari.

I hope they find Lillith.

Janet Lowther 8 years, 7 months ago

As I understand it, KDHE requires underground storage tank owners to maintain at least a million dollar third party liability insurance for cases like this.

They may not be vacationing in the tropics, but they should be taken care of.

Baille 8 years, 7 months ago

There wasn't a million dollars worth of property loss here, was there?

gphawk89 8 years, 7 months ago

Look out, here comes the EPA! The soil is contaminated, the soil is contaminated!!! They'll have to remove all of the dirt to a depth of 50 feet within a block radius of the leaking tank to be sure all of the contamination is removed. Of course, 9th Street will have to be shut down and dug up. Houses will have to be bought out and demolished. This will take years. You'll see a bunch of guys in moon suits constantly pouring over the site taking readings. Then the protests and lawsuits will start regarding the disposal location of the contaminated soil - add another ten years to the mess. Then more lawsuits later by folks who lived in the area wanting to blame any illness they might experience on the spill...

mom_of_three 8 years, 7 months ago

I am glad no one was injured, and hope the responsible party(s) do the right thing by those who lost everything in the fire.

Raider 8 years, 7 months ago

Sad part about this is the slumlord will get the insurance money and the poor people who lost everything will end up with nothing.

badger 8 years, 7 months ago

Wow.

Those poor people. I hope the cat is found. I'd be pretty frantic if my cat were lost in a fire.

I imagine that if it was strong enough for fumes to seep into the basement, and lots of people have just started noticing this gas smell, that maybe something changed with the storage tank? Sudden corrosion, something? I would think that if it were a buildup that had happened over years and years, people would have started noticing that gas smell more gradually.

hipper_than_hip 8 years, 7 months ago

"They'll have to remove all of the dirt to a depth of 50 feet within a block radius of the leaking tank to be sure all of the contamination is removed."

In reality, they only remove the contaminated soil, and not one foot deeper.

Baille 8 years, 7 months ago

"Sad part about this is the slumlord will get the insurance money and the poor people who lost everything will end up with nothing."

There is no reason why this should turn out that way.

Raider 8 years, 7 months ago

"There is no reason why this should turn out that way."

This is true. However, unless the tenants had renter's insurance then they have no claim. The slumlord will still get the insurance, and somehow I doubt they will pass it along to their tenants.

Confrontation 8 years, 7 months ago

I wonder if anyone had noticed the gas smell in the days before the fire. Aquila is great when it comes to checking out potential gas leaks. I had a weird chemical smell coming from my oven a few weeks ago, and even though I told them it didn't smell like gas, they were still there within 15 minutes. There was no gas leak in the oven, but they found a slow gas leak in my basement and realized that my crappy management company hadn't replaced the old copper connectors on my oven. Although I went a day without gas while waiting for repairs, I'm sure glad Aquila has this service (yes, I do know that we all are paying tons of money to Aquila every month, so this really isn't charity work). These poor people may not have had time to detect it and call someone.

Baille 8 years, 7 months ago

"This is true. However, unless the tenants had renter's insurance then they have no claim. The slumlord will still get the insurance, and somehow I doubt they will pass it along to their tenants."

Well, no. If the gas was leaking due to the negligence of a third party or if it accumulated or ignited due to the negligence of a third party, everyone who lost something has an independent claim against the third party or parties. Whether the third party has insurance or the wherewithal to pay for the losses is another issue, but there is a potential civil remedy available to them by law.

Raider 8 years, 7 months ago

"Well, no. If the gas was leaking due to the negligence of a third party or if it accumulated or ignited due to the negligence of a third party, everyone who lost something has an independent claim against the third party or parties. Whether the third party has insurance or the wherewithal to pay for the losses is another issue, but there is a potential civil remedy available to them by law."

ANd I'm sure some sheister / ambulance chasing attorney is just salivating, waiting for a chance to help these poor people. He'll sue for MILLIONS, take his cut (plus expenses) and in the end the poor tenants will get basically nothing.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 8 years, 7 months ago

Considering that this was a gasoline fire, I'm surprised that this wasn't far worse. Think of what could have happened.

Considering the age of the house, I bet that the pilot light on the water heater lit the gas fumes.

Baille 8 years, 7 months ago

"ANd I'm sure some sheister / ambulance chasing attorney is just salivating, waiting for a chance to help these poor people. He'll sue for MILLIONS, take his cut (plus expenses) and in the end the poor tenants will get basically nothing."

That is ridiculous. Five minutes on the internet...

If the people can afford to pay an attorney an hourly wage plus expenses, then they can pursue their claims in that fashion. In this way that client shoulders the risk of loss and the attorney is only paid for their knowledge, unique skills, and professional services. It is kind of like paying a doctor instead of performing the surgery yourself.

If they expect the attorney to foot the expenses and shoulder the risk of loss, then they must pay the attorney accordingly. Of course, all fees must be approved by the court as reasonable compensation, and this determination is appealable through a couple of different avenues.

Or they can represent themselves. That is what Small Claims Court is for. Losses of $4000.00 or less? File in small claims where both parties present their claims sans representation.

And that may be the appropriate avenue in this case. This case is not worth MILLIONS. This is a case about property loss. One is limited in such a case to being compensated for actual losses. CDs, blankets, clothing, furniture - in short, things you can touch. There are no MILLIONS at issue. Large awards come from large losses -whether it be future medical or future wage loss. This case, so far as I have seen, does not involve either. If your losses for personal injury are above a certain amount, then it is possible to ask for compensation for pain and suffering caused by another's negligence. For instance, say you suffer from persistent neuropathy where every moment lived in the absence of morphine is lived with excruciating pain. You are entitled to monetary compensation. In Kansas, pain and suffering is capped at $250,000 and has been since the 1970s. I am sure you think that is fair, but then again I would wager you haven't given it much thought.

Now it may be possible that one can pursue large damages in Kansas for federally authorized lawsuits. Often these are accompanied by the prospect of being awarded treble damages. Of course, this is to encourage people to shoulder the risk and expense of financing a lawsuit that is deemed to be for the benefit of the public. Historically, we have found this approach to be a reasonable alternative to a State-funded enforcement agency while also encouraging those with inside knowledge to come forward. I don't see this is being such a case either.

In short, Raider, while I appreciate and share your concern for the tenants, your position on available civil remedies seems misguided.

webmocker 8 years, 7 months ago

"I believe God put us there to save (Gallagher's) life," she said. "We lived right below her, we'd been there two days. Why else would that have happened? There was no one else there."

If God really wanted to save a life, why not just skip the whole burning-down-the-house routine?

Dani Davey 8 years, 7 months ago

Maybe to draw attention to the leaking gasoline across the street?

gphawk89 8 years, 7 months ago

"In reality, they only remove the contaminated soil, and not one foot deeper." OK, I may have been exaggerating about the EPA... a little bit. Consider this, though: A couple of years back someone broke a mercury thermometer at the hospital where my wife works. One of the nurses made the mistake of calling the EPA to see if anything needed to be done. Before it was all over, the hospital was required to basically gut that wing (tear up and replace all carpeting, remove and replace all furniture, tear down and repace the drop ceiling, clean out all of the air ducts). It ended up costing something over $1,000,000 to satisfy the EPA that there was no mercury left - luckily the hospital had insurance to cover that type of thing. And yes, there were guys waking around in moon suits taking readings. All this for a maximum of maybe .05cc of mercury.

badger 8 years, 7 months ago

Confrontation:

Aquila =/= gasoline. Wrong kind of gas. Likewise, Aquila won't come to your house to tell you not to eat any more bean burritos, because that's yet another form of gas, albeit a natural one. The article's talking about gasoline.

Natural gas of the sort Aquila supplies is an odorless gas (mostly methane) to which an artificial scent is added to aid in leak detection. It comes through lines maintained by the gas company, to each individual house, which has a meter. 'Downstream' of the meter is usually the homeowner's responsibility (though they'll come tell you if you have a leak and shut the gas off for you; they're nice like that), and 'upstream' of the meter is the gas company's (there are special situations, but that's a good general rule).

Gasoline is a liquid that makes cars and trucks go. It is delivered to gas stations in very large trucks. The gas stations then store it in underground tanks, and dispense it at fluctuating prices to people who want to use mechanical transport to be somewhere they are not. Aside from perhaps the Fire Inspector, I'm not sure who you'd call to come detect a gasoline leak, or what they'd be able to do after saying, "Yup, sure does smell like gas," other than evacuating your house and shutting off all the pilot lights, power, and phone service. I'm sure there's a better plan, I just don't know what it is.

The other kind of natural gas is produced and delivered in a completely different kind of pipeline than the one that delivers the gas from Aquila, but is also occasionally present in very large trucks. Generally, it's not considered good form at all to call up anyone when you smell this sort of gas, and ask them to come help you find the leak. Occasionally, though, for some people evacuating the house remains a viable option.

badger 8 years, 7 months ago

gphawk: You, uh, got a source for that?

Cause if it really happened, someone in the hospital's documentation department screwed up royally. There's a protocol for small spills of hazardous chemicals, and there should have been an MSDS on the mercury in that thermometer. All that would have had to happen to satisfy the EPA is that the procedure for a small spill would have had to be followed, the MSDS produced and everyone possibly checked out by a doc, the spill contained and cleaned up (there's a special mercury pillow for that; they're cool-looking) and documented to have been cleaned up.

Unless the EPA found evidence of other contaminants, no dice on the million-dollar remediation. I worked in a facility that used lead paste and mercury in its operations. A couple years ago, they found mercury in the breakroom on one of the tables during a routine test. OHSA was called, and they called the EPA, and the documentation person showed them the janitors' log that said the tables had been wiped down with appropriate solvents and staff had been trained on proper procedures. No bubble suits (they're called 'Level A' or 'Level B' suits, depending on whether or not they're airtight), no tearing out walls.

I'm inclined to call BS, or to suggest that it wasn't the EPA that caused the problem, but a sloppy person in records, if what you say is correct.

Darrell Lea 8 years, 7 months ago

YEARS AGO, back when I bought cigarettes at what is now Presto, I remember watching the underground fill-tank overflowing gasoline, while the delivery truck driver spaced out and FINALLY through the stop switch. Local Haz Mat folks came out and did some perfunctory clean-up, and that was that. I'm willing to bet it wasn't the only time something like that happened.

I'll be following this story closely.

horrific_changeling 8 years, 7 months ago

I'm amazed macon is writing real sentences..did you notice? :D

gphawk89 8 years, 7 months ago

"gphawk: You, uh, got a source for that?"

Well, yeah, my wife was working in that wing of the hospital when it happened. I was there several times during the renovation - they closed the unit off and moved the patients elsewhere within the hospital. I wouldn't believe it either if I hadn't seen it for myself. Maybe someone did screw up - or maybe they did find other contaminants - I don't know - but it was a major overreaction in my opinion.

badger 8 years, 7 months ago

Sorry, gphawk, I was unclear.

I meant a source I could use as a reference to verify the EPA activity, like a newspaper article, something besides hearsay. I don't mean any offense to you, but it's a pretty incredible story and I don't really know you well enough to take you at your word on it.

I figure that closing a hospital unit and putting up that level of remediation would have to show up in a local news source, right? Was it in Lawrence or another city? I could try and do some research on it myself to figure out what was up with it if you told me the name of the hospital.

GardenMomma 8 years, 7 months ago

I agree, there is a MSDS procedure to follow for hazardous material (such as mercury) in a hospital and I hardly think that for a small mercury-filled thermometer the EPA would come in make the hospital spend thousands of dollars to clean up 0.05 cc of mercury.

How long ago was that anyway because you won't find a mercury thermometer in any hospital nowadays, not even 10 years ago.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.