Investigation into Royal Oak home explosion could take months
Feb 28, 2013 (Detroit Free Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Investigators from the Michigan Public Service Commission are at the scene of a possible natural gas explosion that leveled a house, apparently killed a 58-year-old man and damaged more than 30 homes in Royal Oak on Wednesday night.
In addition, at least one federal agency that can investigate pipeline accidents -- a division of the National Transportation Safety Board -- is expected to decide today if it will start its own investigation.
The Oakland County Medical Examiner's Office is conducting an autopsy on the 58-year-old man. His identity has not been released.
Royal Oak Fire Chief Chuck Thomas said aside from the fatality there were no reports of injuries other than scrapes and scratches from the explosion on Cooper that blew out scores of windows. Three houses, however, do have extensive damage.
Two streets remain blocked off in the area -- Cooper and Elmwood. Many of the residents who live in homes affected by the blast are able to be escorted back in to collect any crucial belongings, Thomas said. It's unclear how long residents will be out of their homes. Consumers Energy, which had crews working in the area before the explosion, is paying for hotel rooms at the Quality Inn on Rochester Court in Troy for residents who need a place to stay, although only seven people checked in Wednesday night.
Consumers Energy spokeswoman Debra Dodd said the company is working with local police and fire investigators and the public service commission. Dodd said the utility was replacing natural gas lines in the area, and it has been contacted by the NTSB.
Dodd said utility workers would try to collect relevant salvageable items from the house today such as the gas meter, sections of natural gas pipeline and gas appliances and send them to an independent testing laboratory for analysis.
Dodd said the Consumers Energy crews had finished their work in the same block of Cooper prior to the explosion, which was reported before 5 p.m.
"It was just a typical main replacement project," she said.
Dodd, who said that "our hearts and prayers" go out to the victim's family, said some media outlets had reported that neighbors smelled gas in the area prior to the explosion.
"We always want to stress ... if you ever smell that distinct rotten egg odor, call us immediately (at 800-477-5050). We'll respond 24/7," Dodd said.
Any investigation into the cause of the blast could take considerable time. The public service commission has not completed its investigation into the Dec. 29, 2010 explosion that destroyed the William C. Franks Furniture store in Wayne and killed two employees and injured the owner. Consumers Energy, which was involved in that case as well, said its own year-long investigation left the cause undetermined.
Judy Palnau, a spokeswoman for the commission, said staff members will remain at the Royal Oak explosion site as long as needed. Staffers will complete a report and then the commission will determine whether it needs to issue an order.
"It is a slow but methodical process," Palnau said, noting that it's "way too early to speculate" about the order. She said such orders could call for fines or instructions on how a utility should conduct similar work in a neighborhood in the future.
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: email@example.com
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