Cut gas line caused explosion downtown, NTSB says in preliminary review

Staff photos / Ed Runyan Youngstown Fire Chief Barry Finley talks on his cellphone while NTSB investigator Sheryl Harley talks to Youngstown Fire Department investigator Charles Hodge on Thursday morning as part of an NTSB investigation of the explosion that destroyed the first floor of the Realty Tower downtown. Tuesday afternoon.

YOUNGSTOWN — The National Transportation Safety Board has preliminarily found that a natural gas line in the basement of the Realty Tower that had been cut was the reason for the 2:44 p.m. explosion that destroyed the lower floors of the building Tuesday afternoon and killed a man.

The first floor was occupied by a Chase Bank branch. There are apartments on the upper floors of the building. Two NTSB officials spoke to reporters Thursday at the Holiday Inn in Boardman to describe the investigation that will be carried out in the coming days and months.

They said the NTSB does not investigate every natural gas explosion, but this one appears to bring up issues they are especially concerned about, namely, third-party vendors potentially causing gas explosions and why a not-in-service gas line had pressurized natural gas in it.

Tom Chapman, a member of the NTSB board, said the natural gas provider to the area, Enbridge, and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, went into the basement after the explosion and found the cut service line, which was inactive but still pressurized. Enbridge is the natural gas utility for the area.

Chapman said inactive service lines should generally not be pressurized and that is one of the areas that will be investigated. He was accompanied at the press conference by Kim West of the NTSB, investigator in charge of the Realty Tower investigation.

Chapman said the Enbridge and the PUCO determined the line was pressurized, then capped the service line and turned off the gas to it. They were accompanied by Youngstown firefighters “because it’s a very dangerous situation,” Chapman said.

Chapman clarified that third-party workers are “someone other than the gas company or public utilities or someone who might ordinarily be working on gas lines.”

When asked about work in the basement, he said “What we know is there was work being done in the basement, reportedly to clear out old infrastructure, artifacts of old infrastructure, such as pipes, such as wire, that sort of thing. That’s what we understand. That’s part of what we are investigating. We have not established that definitively.”

He said, “Preliminary information suggests work crews were present in the basement of the building for the purpose of clearing out old utility infrastructure. A possible third-party cut to the pressurized service line is a central focus of our investigation to determine the cause of the gas release and subsequent explosion.”

Chapman said a goal of the investigation is to determine what the “source” of the cut was. “We do have the line. We know it was cut.” It was a service line coming off of the main line and leading to the property that was ‘essentially abandoned.’ It was not servicing the property at the time,” he said.

When asked whether the cut line suggested an act of “domestic terrorism,” he said no and that “There is no evidence at all that there was anything nefarious about what happened.”

The investigative team will be on scene for about one week. A preliminary report is expected to be published in about 30 days. Final reports from NTSB take from 12 to 24 months to complete, he said.

West and her team will investigate “operations and integrity management, survival factors, emergency response and human performance. With regard to this tragedy, we are particularly interested in issues related to gas line failure and system integrity management, third-party work in the vicinity of gas lines and emergency response,” Chapman said.

Additionally, the NTSB has a specialist in disaster assistance “on scene who will be working closely with the families and local agencies to provide support to those involved,” he said.

The mission of the NTSB is as an “independent federal agency. We are charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in railroad, highway, marine and pipeline.

“Our mission is to understand, not just what happened but why it happened and to recommend changes to prevent it from happening again.” He said the agency will not determine the probable cause of the explosion while they are on scene, “nor will we speculate about the cause. These are the first steps in a lengthy investigative process.”

He said another goal of the NTSB is to issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. “We are working closely with the pipeline and hazardous materials safety administration, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, and other federal, state and local agencies,” he said.

He encouraged witnesses or those with information relevant to the investigation, including any video footage, to contact the NTSB by email at witness@ntsb.gov.

When Chapman was asked about potential negligence in the explosion, he said “Our role is not to assign blame or fault. Our role is to determine what happened. We’re just looking to determine what the facts are. Once we determine what those facts are, we will make them available through a final report. There are other forums for determining whether there was negligence.”

He said the NTSB does not “look at all natural gas explosions. We focus our attention on those that we think might have some particular impact in terms of safety, certainly from a national perspective, if there are lessons that can be learned that can be shared with others to make sure we don’t have similar circumstances.

“In this case, we have a longstanding concern about third-party work in the vicinity of gas lines. That is a major element in this investigation. We are also concerned about gas-line-system integrity. Here we have apparently a line that was abandoned and yet pressurized. We want to learn more about why that happened and what we can do to help ensure that doesn’t happen in the future.”

Chapman checked with West a few times while answering questions to make sure she agreed with the way he was stating things, but he otherwise did all of the talking.

He started out his presentation by offering condolences to the friends and families of the “victims of this tragedy.” He commended the law enforcement and first responders who provided emergency response, and the hospital staff who treated the injured.

He said gas leaks or gas-related explosions are “not common,” even in older buildings. “This is particularly catastrophic. We were down there this morning to the site, and the damage down there is stunning. The damage to the building is devastating.”

He added, “When you are up close to it and you see how deep it goes down into the basement area and how much damage there was and the size of the structures that were damaged, it gets your attention.”

When asked how long the gas may have been leaking, Chapman checked with West, who agreed after he said, “It is my understanding it happened very quickly.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Chase Bank employee Akil Drake of the Pittsburgh area died in the explosion. He was a 2019 graduate of Youngstown State University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, according to a 2019 commencement program online. He worked as a relationship banker for Chase.

When asked whether the building can be saved, Chapman said the NTSB does not address those issues. “That is the sort of thing that state and federal authorities determine,” he said, calling the NTSB an “independent federal agency.”

No one is allowed in the building, including the people who lived in the apartments on the floors above the bank.

Have an interesting story? Contact Ed Runyan by email at erunyan@vindy.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribToday.


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