Family blames burns on Atmos natural gas leak

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on October 13, 2011 at 11:09 PM

DALLAS - All of the official accounts indicate a lightning strike was to blame for an incident that injured the young Mendez family, leaving the mother and son clinging to life.

What the public may remember about the house fire on Sept. 18 was a little dog rescued from the rubble of a garage apartment in central Oak Cliff. What the family remembers was something much worse.

"I heard the boom and I heard the screaming of my sister-in-law and my nephew," said Maria Mendez, sister of one of the victims.

Responding to the screams, Mendez said she ran outside to witness a back house blown apart and her brother, 33-year-old Domingo Mendez, trapped inside. He escaped with serious burns.

His 26-year-old wife, Juliana, and their five-year-old son, Juan Pablo, were more critically burned and were hospitalized in critical condition. The mother is still in ICU.

According to Dallas Fire officials, a "lightning strike" was responsible.

But the following day, as attention was being focused on the house, an Atmos Energy crew were digging around and repairing a natural gas line. That raised the question, was lightning really to blame, or was there an explosion?

The incident took place around 11 p.m. on Sept. 18. But weather radar captured at the time shows by 10:15 p.m. the storm system was well past the Mendez home in central Oak Cliff.

Mendez' niece, Alina Mendez, said she heard a boom, not a lightning strike. She says her uncle told her the house had exploded when he and his family entered the home and he turned on the light.

Alina Mendez' father was also in the front house at the time.

"The boom that we know is not with the lightning and rain, it's something like an explosion with gas," said Domingo Mendez, Sr.

Mr. Mendez and other members of his family said they had smelled gas outside before. They also noticed the Atmos crews working to make repairs in the alley for nearly a week after the incident.

An investigator with the Texas Railroad Commission was also sent to the scene. The Railroad Commission regulates the state's natural gas industry.

According to the agency's incident report, "a lightning strike caused the fire on a garage apartment." Where the report asks whether the investigator found evidence of an explosion, the investigator answered, ”no."

But later the report he mentions evidence of a "low pressure natural gas main leak in the alley approximately 3-feet behind the structure."

Mendez Sr. said the day after the explosion, an Atmos claims representative approached him interested in helping him and his family.

“She said let her have the first chance to help me before we get a lawyer,” said Mendez Sr.

Leary of the offer, Mendez did hire an attorney - Domingo Garcia - who said he questions the integrity of any investigation built around claims of a  lightning strike, and dismissing the possibility of an explosion that has devastated a young family.

"This is a terrible, terrible explosion, this family is totally devastated and they want to know the truth,” Garcia said.

Garcia has filed a lawsuit against Atmos, claiming gross negligence as evidenced by a gas leak in the alley just feet from the Mendez home.

Atmos Energy has declined to respond to the allegations and says it has not been served with the lawsuit.

The state's investigation could take several months.

The Railroad Commission is already requiring Atmos to remove more than a million faulty couplings thought to be responsible for house explosions resulting injury and death dating back to the 1980's.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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