Explosion: Boiler or gas?

FLINT, MI — The exact cause of an explosion and fire at the Clara Barton Terrace Convalescent Home here, initially reported to have been a boiler explosion, is still in doubt. A recent discovery, however, points to a possible gas explosion.

The explosion, which occurred at approximately 9 p.m. on November 10, killed five people (two employees of the home and three residents), and injured 32. More than 90 residents and about 110 people total were in the building at the time, and Mayor Woodrow Stanley stated that it was “almost miraculous” that there weren’t more fatalities.

Although the State of Michigan’s Department of Consumer and Industry Services (CIS) noted that early reports attributed the explosion to one of the home’s boilers, spokeswoman Maura Campbell said that the “investigation is ongoing.” Pointing out that its investigation of the Ford River Rouge Plant boiler explosion took eight months to complete, Campbell said that this too could take months.

Inspectors from five different offices, remarked Campbell, are looking into the incident. These include MIOSHA, the Bureau of Construction Codes Boiler Division, Bureau of Health Systems (which oversees nursing homes), Public Service Commission, and Office of Fire Safety.

Arson investigators from the Michigan State Police were called in by the Flint Fire Department. The federal government sent representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has jurisdiction over incoming natural gas lines as interstate carriers, said Campbell, to check for a possible gas explosion.

Passed 98 inspection

The last inspection of the nursing home’s boilers occurred on November 24, 1998 by Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co., Hartford, CT. The company’s inspectors reported that the three boilers showed “no adverse conditions.” The next inspection was not due until December of 2000.

The newest boiler was manufactured in 1993. The oldest was built in 1963.

Since the explosion happened in the boiler room area, officials first considered a possible boiler explosion. According to Hartford Steam Boiler spokesman Dennis Milewski, rather than report the incident as “an explosion in the boiler room,” the Associated Press (AP) called it “a boiler explosion.” A number of media outlets picked up on the AP story and repeated the boiler focus.

Within two days, though, attention turned to the possibility of a natural gas leak causing the explosion. An employee at the home reportedly smelled gas before the explosion occurred.

However, utility Consumers Energy asserted that gas was not the primary cause, but was “a secondary fuel.”

One official on the scene stated that what he could see of the boilers was intact.

A Hartford Steam Boiler inspector expected to join the investigation on November 15, but was not allowed access while the state and federal inquiry is ongoing.

Federal investigators from the NTSB then found parts of the gas piping system that showed corrosion on a valve. These parts were to be shipped to Washington for analysis. An NTSB spokesman noted that testing must be done before anything can be confirmed. However, corrosion is a leading cause of pipeline problems.

Asked about the corrosion, Campbell of the CIS stated, “We haven’t concluded anything from any of our [state] investigations yet.”

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