From Our Attorneys: Resources for Helping Victims of the Merrimack Valley Natural Gas Explosions

At Breakstone, White & Gluck, our attorneys are saddened and stunned to learn about the devastating natural gas explosions in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover. Our hearts go out to the victims, the young man who was killed and his loved ones, the dozens who were injured and the hundreds who were forced to evacuate unsafe conditions.

Like so many others, our attorneys are following the media coverage. We hope everyone stays safe. We share these resources for anyone interested in helping:

Want to help Merrimack Valley residents displaced by fires? Here’s how, The Boston Globe

This article provides a list of relief organizations which are helping victims of the home gas explosions. There is contact information for the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Essex County Community Foundation and other organizations.

How to help the victims of the Merrimack Valley fires, explosions, WCVB
The Red Cross has nearly 75 people working in four evacuation centers in Merrimack Valley. You can make a donation to help fund their efforts.

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Norfolk Propane Gas Explosion Leads to Federal Safety Alert

As a direct result of our client’s tragic death, a leading federal agency has issued a safety alert regarding nationwide measures to prevent catastrophic propane gas explosions.

On July 17, 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) published a national safety alert in the Federal Register which warns the public of the risks associated with under-odorization of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). It also advises shippers and carriers on recommended procedures for ensuring that LPG is properly odorized on all modes of transportation.

The PHMSA called the Norfolk gas explosion which killed Nichols and injured seven others the “most notable” of cases it considered.

On July 30, 2010, William Nichols, a 47-year-old electrician was working in the basement of an unfinished condominium at The Village at River’s Edge when it exploded. The structure was demolished. Nichols was buried under burning debris for 70 minutes and suffered burns over 80 percent of his body before he was rescued. Emergency workers responded from 21 nearby cities and towns. He died later that night at a Boston hospital.

The Nichols family was represented by attorney Marc L. Breakstone, of Breakstone, White & Gluck of Boston. In the lawsuit, the Nichols’ family alleged that EnergyUSA had negligently under-filled a new propane tank in the condominium development, causing the chemical odor which had been added to the propane to fade and become undetectable. When a loose fitting on the plumbing caused odorless propane gas to leak into the basement, Nichols and others were unaware of the extreme danger of working in the structure. When a hot water heater pilot ignited, the house exploded in a ball of flames. The remaining structure caved in on Mr. Nichols who was trapped in burning debris for over an hour.

During the litigation, Breakstone discovered that the propane supply company had intentionally under-filled the storage tank to save around $2,000. As a result of this, the chemical odorant in the gas faded out making the leaking gas undetectable.

The family settled its wrongful death lawsuit with EnergyUSA Propane and Smolinsky Brothers Plumbing and Heating for $7.5 million.

New Recommendations
Injection process. LPG is odorized through manual and automated injection. When it is odorized by manual means, the PHMSA recommends quality control checks be conducted. It recommends periodic equipment checks when LPG is odorized through automated means.

New tanks or freshly cleaned tanks. The PHMSA recommends those who fill LPG tanks use quality control measures that ensure LPG has sufficient odorant when it is delivered to end users. It also recommends people who receive new or recently cleaned propane tanks be notified.

Odorization standards. PHMSA recommends that all LPG transported in rail tank car tanks or cylinders be odorized in accordance with the requirements of § 173.315(b)(1), of the Hazardous Materials Regulations, issued by the Department of Transportation.

Read the regulations here.

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Take Extra Precautions with Propane Gas Grills This Holiday

Propane gas grill fire

For many of us, Fourth of July celebrations start with a barbecue grill. Many are powered by a propane gas tank and require special care in handling. Propane is an invisible, but highly flammable gas which can trigger an explosion if it leaks and comes into contact with fire. 

When grills are not properly used or maintained or are left unattended, accidents can occur. There are several safety concerns associated with grills, including propane leaks, cooking burns and fires. In the last year, there have also been a few product recalls involving grills.

Propane Gas Leaks and Explosions
Protect your propane gas tank from leaks. Take care when transporting it to your refilling station. Place it in a secure box and return it immediately home after filling it. Have it inspected annually by a qualified professional.

Store the propane gas tank outside your home. Also keep it away from your garage or any deck attached to your home. These areas may seem safe to use because they are not living areas, but according to the U.S. Fire Administration, more than half of all residential grilling fires in the U.S. begin on porches, terraces, exterior balconies and similar areas.

Grilling Burns and Structure Fires
When grilling, the safest solution is to stay outside your home or apartment building, as far away as you can.

This protects your home as well as your guests and young children who are too often victims of grilling burns. According to the National Fire Protection Association, children under age 5 accounted for about one quarter of all thermal burn injuries in 2007. Many of these burns occur when children are curious and touch or bump up against the grill.

If you live in an apartment building or multi-unit dwelling, you may also want to check with your property manager and city and town offices for additional information. Massachusetts state law does permit use of propane grills on first floor porches only, but some cities have gone a step further. For instance, the city of Boston does not permit either propane or charcoal grills above ground floor porches. Grilling on rooftops is not permitted either.

Before heading out to the grill, review the manufacturer’s instructions first. If you no longer have the instructions, check if they are available on the manufacturer’s website.

Use long-handled grilling tools and avoid wearing loose clothing. Work neat and remove grease and fat build-up from the grills.

Finally and most important, never leave the grill unattended. If you need to step away for a minute, finish up your cooking and turn the grill off.

Grill Recalls
Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission and your manufacturer’s website to see if there have been any recalls involving your grill. When a grill is recalled, you may be asked to return it to the manufacturer or retailer for a refund or be given instructions to replace a part.

In April 2012, more than 87,000 gas grills sold in the U.S. were recalled by One World Technologies, and another 1,400 in Canada. The company offered consumers a replacement regulator after receiving 569 reports its grills were leaking propane gas. The defective grills were sold at Home Depot stores nationwide and Directory Tools Factory Outlet stores from March 2011 through February 2012.

No injuries were reported at the time of the recall.

Another recall came in November 2012, when 37,000 Master Forge Gas Grills sold at Lowe’s Stores were recalled due to fire and burn hazards. In that case, consumers were asked to contact the manufacturer, Guangdong Vanward Electric Co., Ltd., of China, for revised instructions and a warning label that showed how to properly install the hose and regulator.

At the time of the recall, the manufacturer reported two reports of hoses melting and rupturing, but no injuries. The defective product was sold at Lowe’s stores nationwide from November 2011 through May 2012.

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Propane Explosion Victim’s Family Settles for $7.5 Million in Norfolk Case

marcbreakstone_125.jpgAttorney Marc L. Breakstone of Breakstone, White & Gluck in Boston has announced a $7.5 million settlement has been reached for an electrician killed in a propane gas explosion at a Norfolk, Massachusetts condominium complex.

Breakstone and the family of William “Billy” Nichols announced the settlement on July 9, nearly two years after Nichols died in the July 30, 2010 propane explosion. Breakstone represented the Nichols family and filed a wrongful death lawsuit on their behalf against EnergyUSA Propane and Smolinsky Brothers Heating and Plumbing.

The wrongful death lawsuit alleged EnergyUSA negligently underfilled a new propane tank at the complex where Nichols had been working. By underfilling the tank, the company caused the chemical odorant to fade, making propane undetectable when it started to leak.

The wrongful death lawsuit alleged Smolinsky Brothers Heating and Plumbing carelessly failed to tighten a connection to the furnace which led to the leak of the undetectable propane gas.

Breakstone called the propane explosion a “terrible tragedy that could easily have been avoided.” Nichols, 46, of Blackstone, was buried under burning debris for 97 minutes before he was rescued by local firefighters. He was crushed by smoldering debris, had severe burns over 80 percent of his body and called on rescuers to say goodbye to his fiance and other family members. He was transported by MedFlight helicopter to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he died that evening from the burns and injuries.

During litigation, Breakstone said he discovered EnergyUSA Propane sold its assets to a publicly-traded energy company for $66.8 million to avoid the likelihood of paying punitive damages in a jury trial. Breakstone obtained a court-order freeze on the remaining company cash assets.

As a result of Nichols’ death, Massachusetts is expected to introduce new regulations this fall which will ensure better safety training for propane delivery personnel as well as require newly installed propane storage tanks be filled to the maximum liquid level to avoid the odorant fade problem that caused this propane explosion.

Click for coverage in The Boston Globe, WBZ-TV, WCVB and Wicked Local.

Click here to read the July 9, 2012 media release.

Click here to read the statement from Norfolk Fire Chief Coleman C. Bushnell.
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State Investigation Reveals Unodorized Propane Tanks in Fatal Norfolk Explosion

According to the recently released report of the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal, the Norfolk condominium explosion that killed an electrician in July 2010 was caused by a leak of unodorized propane gas. Breakstone, White & Gluck represents the late electrician’s family.

William Nichols, a 46-year-old electrician from Blackstone, was one of the workers in the condominium at The Village at River’s Edge when it exploded on July 30. He was buried under burning debris for more than ninety minutes before he was pulled alive and conscious from the wreckage. Mr. Nichols died that evening at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston from his massive injuries. Seven other people were injured in the blast.

State investigators called this a case of “odorant fade,” which results from underfilling of a new propane tank. Industry safety standards specify tanks should be filled 80 percent. EnergyUSA of Taunton only put 200 gallons in the tank providing propane to the condominium.

Workers at the scene had no warning there was a propane leak. The leaking gas contained no ethyl mercaptan, a strong odorant which is added to propane to allow for its detection. Without this additive, propane is odorless and undetectable.

Boston attorney Marc Breakstone, who represents the Nichols family, stated that ‘these reports describe in painful detail the danger of a leak of unodorized propane gas into the environment. This was a tragedy which could have been prevented if industry safety standards had been followed.”

Read the state report on the explosion.

News coverage:

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New Information in Fatal Gas Explosion in Somerset, Massachusetts

Information uncovered by news teams investigating the fatal gas explosion in Somerset, Massachusetts on February 19, 2009, indicates that damage to a gas main, perhaps from construction activity, may have been a cause of the terrible accident.

Residents in the vicinity of the explosion had reported the smell of gas, and the New England Gas Company was in the area investigating, knocking on doors in the neighborhood. However, within twenty minutes of the arrival of gas company crews, the home of 62-year old Rose Marie Rebello exploded, then erupted in flames. Ms. Rebello and her dog both died, and a firefighter and a utility worker were injured. Homes in the area suffered damage, and hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate. Six homes were rendered uninhabitable, and dozens of others were damaged.

Investigators discovered that a 200-foot long section of the gas main, which was installed over 40 years ago, was “damaged and breached,” possibly by later construction activities. The damage may have been done during the installation of a sewer main and the tie-ins in the neighborhood, though that work was done in the 1970s.

It was the third Massachusetts explosion in three months. One man died in Scituate in December, and another man was seriously injured in January in Gloucester.  This is a sharp increase in the accident rate in Massachusetts compared to the previous ten years. Another man was killed in a gas explosion in his home in Manchester, NH, on February 24, 2009. Aging infrastructure and the need for greater maintenance are probably significant factors in gas explosions.


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