East Harlem blast raises awareness locally


While a natural gas explosion in New York City has raised concerns over aging pipelines, state and local fire officials believe Connecticut has a good safety record.

Two apartment buildings were leveled in East Harlem Wednesday after a natural gas leak caused an explosion. As of Friday, the explosion had resulted in eight deaths. The accidental blast has raised awareness about the dangers of a natural gas leaks and aging gas mains.

Sonora Mul, of Cheshire, a student at New York’s LIM College for fashion and merchandising, lives blocks away from the site of the explosion. She woke up Wednesday to the sound of fire alarms and sirens, she said.

“I didn’t really see anything,” she said, “but there was definitely a sad tone to the city. A lot of people were on edge.”

She added that the building she lives in conducted fire drills for its tenants. While New York fire and police officials are still searching through the site, Mul said “everyone was in pretty good spirits” Friday.

“It was definitely sad that day, but people are definitely looking out more and being more careful,” she said.

For Meriden Fire Marshal Steve Trella, the East Harlem explosion brought back memories of a similar local blast. On March 29, 1998, a house on Lima Street was reduced to rubble after a stove filled the home with natural gas. The explosion sent one man to the hospital who later died from his injuries.

“It was a Saturday morning, about eight in the morning,” Trella said in a phone interview Friday. “The dispatcher called up and said they had a house explode with injuries and that obviously damaged other buildings around it. When I got there, the house was leveled.”

Trella said he had never seen anything “that serious” in an explosion. To this day, he can “still picture the window sills totally blown up in a tree 50- to 60-feet up.

“Portions of this house were scatted all over the square block area,” Trella continued. “It’s something I never saw before and hopefully don’t see again.”

He acknowledged the causes of the explosions in Meriden and East Harlem were different. But the accident with the gas main in New York, which was over 100 years old, should make cities and towns realize the importance of replacing aging pipes, he said.

“Nothing lasts forever,” Trella said of the pipelines. “There’s going to be a point where these devices will have to be replaced.”

But replacing these pipelines would be expensive and take time to complete. If the gas lines under West Main Street in Meriden were to be replaced, Trella said, the entire street would have to be worked on.

“To rip up West Main Street and replace that main gas line running up the street is a pretty involved process,” he said.

Trella added that Yankee Gas routinely drives around the city, checking for leaks. If they find one, Trella said, it’s fixed immediately.

Mitch Gross, spokesman for Yankee Gas, emphasized safety is the company’s main priority.

“We respond to reports of leaks as quickly as possible,” he said. “Our employees undergo thorough training ... and Yankee Gas continues to be hard at work to provide our customers with superior service.”

The state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority has a “gas pipeline safety unit,” which has been in place for several years.

“The pipeline safety unit conducts inspections and works with utilities to maintain safety of the pipeline,” said Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. “We have a great record in Connecticut in terms of pipeline safety.”

Trella agreed, adding that even with the vast number of pipelines in the country, “you don’t have buildings blowing up everyday.”

In the wake of Wednesday’s explosion in East Harlem, Trella advises residents to be vigilant.

If there is an odor of gas in a building, he said, call 911.

“The lesson here is apparently people were able to smell natural gas in this building long before the explosion actually happened,” he said.

“You smell gas, especially in a building, call 911 first and the fire department will make a preliminary assessment. Then they will notify Yankee Gas to further investigate.”

evo@record-journal.com (203) 317-2235 Twitter: @EricVoRJ



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