New York

Deadly Explosion That Leveled NJ Home Likely Caused by Gas Line Breach, Mayor Says

An explosion at a two-family home in New Jersey that killed one person and injured more than a dozen others was likely caused by a breach in the gas line, authorities said Friday.

Experts investigating the blast in Elizabeth on Wednesday agree there was a breach in a gas line in the building, which has illegally converted apartments, said Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage.

When tenants who were living in the home moved out in September, the gas was turned off and a gas-powered dryer was removed from its connection, Bollwage said. On Oct. 1, new tenants moved into the first-floor apartment, and over the next few days, someone turned on the gas.

Authorities are also looking at the possibility a gas line was not properly capped after a dryer was removed from the property, according to Bollwage. 

On Tuesday, the gas company arrived to officially turn on the gas but found it was already turned on. Residents later recalled smelling a gas odor that day, but no one called 911. 

The explosion happened Wednesday morning, blowing the roof off the Magnolia Avenue duplex. The blast killed Femi Brown, a 24-year-old expecting his first child with his girlfriend, who was injured in the blast along with 14 others, including an 11-year-old.

Bollwage said he wants to know whether the gas company workers made any kind of inspection or investigated further when they arrived at the home and found the gas already turned on. 

"What did they do when they arrived and found the gas was already going through the unit?" he said. "The gas company is going to have to answer." 

Elizabethtown Gas Company said its technician did check its own equipment and that everything was fine.

"When he arrived, the technician found that the gas service was already on to the apartment and to the customer-owned piping and appliances inside. At that point, the technician did what Elizabethtown Gas does in such situations – he checked to confirm that the company’s equipment was operating properly and safely. He found that it was," the company said in a statement.

"In the course of his work, the technician entered the first-floor apartment and spoke to the customer. No leak was reported to our technician, and he found no evidence of a leak while he was performing his work. Our technician also was not informed of the existence of the illegal apartment on the ground floor," the statement said. 

In the past year, the state Board of Public Utilities has received a total of 490 complaints about Elizabethtown Gas Company, most dealing with service or billing issues, records show. Six of them were for gas leaks. One official suggested that it not an abnormal number, but homeowners in the area remained concerned.

"I'm just not satisfied with what I've heard," said Kayon Price, who owns the house next door and was thrown from his bed at the time of the explosion. "I think the gas company is definitely negligent."

Brown's father, Isibor, said Femi Brown lived to help others and may have shielded his girlfriend from the blast. 

The mayor also updated the condition of other victims, saying only two of five people at the St. Barnabus Hospital burn unit remain in critical condition. 

Three structures near the home will need to be demolished because of structural damage, officials said Wednesday. At least 30 people were placed in hotels after the blast.

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