Skip to main content

Five killed in Pennsylvania natural-gas explosion

The Associated Press

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A thunderous gas explosion devastated a row-house neighborhood, killing five people, and suspicion fell on an 83-year-old cast-iron gas main.

The fiery blast was the latest natural-gas disaster to raise questions about the safety of the nation's aging, 2.5-million-mile network of gas and liquid pipelines.

The explosion, which flattened a pair of row houses and set fire to a block of homes late Wednesday, occurred in an area where the underground gas main lacked shut-off valves.

It took utility workers five hours in the freezing cold to punch through ice, asphalt and concrete and seal the 12-inch main with foam, cutting off the flow of gas that fed the raging flames.

Dorothy Yanett, 65, said she was in her living room when she heard a series of booms.

"Everything falling and crashing, glass, just a nightmare," she said. "There was no odor, there was no smell. Then it was like all hell broke loose."

Joe Swope, a spokesman for Reading-based UGI Utilities, said Thursday that a routine leak-detection test in that area had come up clean Tuesday, and there had been no calls about gas odors before the disaster.

Officials said five bodies were recovered Thursday: a 4-month-old boy, a 16-year-old girl, a 69-year-old woman, a 79-year-old man and a 74-year-old woman. Their names were not immediately released.

Forty-seven homes were damaged, and eight appeared to be a total loss, said Allentown Fire Chief Robert Scheirer. The spot of the explosion and what triggered it were being investigated.

Investigators planned to send cameras through the main to look for cracks and perform air-pressure tests on the service lines.

Last September, a 44-year-old gas-transmission line ruptured in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people, injuring dozens and leaving 55 homes too damaged to be lived in. Investigators said the pipe had numerous flawed welds.

In Philadelphia last month, a gas-main explosion sent a 50-foot fireball into the sky, killing a utility worker, injuring six people and forcing dozens from their homes. Past pipeline explosions have been blamed on such factors as corrosion or damage by heavy-construction equipment.

Rick Kessler, who worked on pipeline-safety issues for many years as a Democratic congressional aide, said that cast-iron pipe is a vestige of an earlier era and that the federal Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 envisions its replacement with safer materials, such as steel. He said Pennsylvania may have the most cast-iron gas lines in use.

"Think about the things in your daily life that are made of cast iron, besides a frying pan," said Kessler, now a lobbyist and vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group. "We should always be concerned when we have pipes dating back a century." Swope said there was no history of leaks in the immediate area of the Allentown explosion.

Asked about any plans to replace the main, the utility spokesman said the section had been deemed safe and reliable. He also said there had been no recent reports of construction in the neighborhood.

As for the possibility that the freezing weather caused a pipe to rupture, Swope said:

"In the winter, there's always the concern about the freezing-thawing cycle, but seeing that we just ran the leak survey less than 48 hours before the incident, that doesn't appear to be a cause."


A gas explosion rocked Hanoverton, a small eastern Ohio village, Thursday night and at least one house caught fire. Officials had no initial reports of injury.