Gasoline leak suspected in blaze

Investigators check nearby stations in 'precautionary' move

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.”