IRVING -- The Christmas decorations still hang in what remains of the charred house on Colgate Lane almost three months after a devastating house explosion.
Before dawn on New Year’s Day, migrating natural gas ignited the pilot light in the furnace of the Irving home, according to fire investigators.
That morning, an Atmos crew had been on scene for about eight hours trying to repair a gas leak near the corner of O’Connor Road and Colgate Lane near the home.
Family members told fire investigators that Atmos workers repeatedly told them there was no need to evacuate, according to fire department records obtained by WFAA through an open records request.
The sleeping family narrowly escaped with their lives.
Atmos’ reluctance to evacuate the Irving neighborhood is similar to the company’s actions in northwest Dallas last month. On Feb. 21, a house on Durango Drive in Dallas exploded because of a gas leak. The next day, another house caught fire – again ignited by leaking natural gas. Still Atmos did not evacuate the neighborhood. It wasn’t until Feb. 23 when a third house on nearby Espanola Drive exploded, killing 12-year-old Linda “Michellita” Rogers, that Atmos evacuated residents and embarked on an unprecedented mass replacement of gas lines servicing about 2,800 homes.
“Anytime you smell gas, you have to take it very seriously,” says Brigham McCown, former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency that regulates pipelines. “When you are faced with evidence that there is a leak in the area, the gas need to be turned off and people should not be left inside…One of the concerns I have is whether or not there is a lackadaisical approach to safety.”
Atmos did not respond to a request for comment on the Irving explosion.
Jon Higginbotham made the first call to Irving 911 on New Year’s Eve about 7:30 p.m.
Higginotham’s mother lives on the street over from Colgate Lane. He and his pregnant wife were leaving the neighborhood when the smell of natural gas engulfed their car. He told the 911 operator that the smell was so strong that he felt like he could “light a match and the whole neighborhood would blow up,” according to recordings obtained by WFAA.
“It smelled like I had turned on my gas range and put my hose right to the range,” he told WFAA.
About two and half hours later, an Atmos crew arrived on scene to try to find and repair the leak in the 45-year-old, six-inch plastic pipe. The crew knocked on the door of the home at 3567 Colgate Lane, records show, and they asked if they could have access to the front lawn to look for the gas leak.
“Occupant Magdalena Lopez was concerned,” the Irving Fire Department investigation report states. “She asked the Atmos representative if there was a need to evacuate the home. The Atmos representative stated that there was not a need to evacuate the home.”
Lopez told fire investigators she asked Atmos crews on scene at least three times “if was safe to remain in the home or should they leave during the repairs,” the report states. She was reassured that it was OK so the family went to bed as Atmos crews kept working.
Around 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Atmos asked the fire department for helping controlling traffic. In a call to dispatch, an Atmos crew member sounded frustrated that they couldn’t contain the serious leak. He told the dispatcher that it was causing their equipment to stall.
“It’s starting to migrate and our backhoe’s kind of started fluttering,” he told the dispatcher.
Fire investigators would later determine that the equipment was stalling because there was so much “natural gas in the atmosphere,” according to fire records.
When the fire department crew arrived on scene, a fire captain asked Atmos, “’Do any of these houses need to be evacuated?’ The crew leader’s response was, ‘I don’t think so," records show.
The fire crew remained on scene, just in case. Meanwhile, natural gas was migrating into the home on Colgate and rising to the second floor. It came in contact with a pilot light, triggering an explosion.
The fire crew had been on scene for two hours when the house blew up around 5 a.m.
“Oh my God,” a caller told 911. “They’re screaming.”
Inside the home, a 23-year-old woman was trapped along with her 5-year-old son and another relative. The woman threw clothes on the fire, smothering it for a moment, allowing them to escape. The woman who had earlier spoken to Atmos was asleep on the living room sofa. Burning debris fell on her. She pushed it off of her and ran outside with one pet and the keys to the family vehicle. Her husband, asleep in the bedroom, was startled by the explosion and managed to escape.
“I’ve never been close to a fire like that or seen a house burn like that,” one neighbor told a WFAA crew after the explosion.
Hours after the explosion, a fire department spokesman defended their decision not to evacuate.
“It’s not out of the ordinary to have gas leaks, natural gas leaks, but it’s rare that you actually evacuate a house especially in situations like this,” the spokesman said.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates pipeline companies like Atmos, is continuing to investigate the cause of the Irving explosion. The commission could levy fines against Atmos if it determines that the pipeline company broke any regulations.
Again, Atmos declined repeated requests, beginning last week, to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the Feb. 23 deadly blast in Dallas. A preliminary report released last week revealed that the pipe behind the Espanola house was cracked all the way around. The NTSB report also revealed gas leaks had been discovered in northwest Dallas neighborhood two months before the fatal explosion.
“It frustrates me as a regulator,” McCown said. “These types of accidents are 100 percent preventable. I think Atmos needs to go back to the drawing board and take a look at their safety (protocols) and really make sure they are in fact placing safety as their No. 1 highest priority.”
McCown says Atmos needs to install neighborhood shut off valves to make it easier to go in and safely work on a line to help prevent deadly incidents. He also agrees it may be time for the industry to come up with best practices to determine when to evacuate a home or neighborhood when there is a gas leak.
“A lot of it, I guess, is supposed to be common sense, and sometimes maybe that doesn’t work,” he said.
The house on Colgate Lane in Irving is so damaged that it will likely be torn down. Its windows are blown out. The house shifted on its foundation, apparently due to the force of the explosion. A “no trespassing” sign warns people away.
Higginbotham is still angry at Atmos’ inaction on New Year’s in the face of safety concerns.
“My mom has a furnace,” he told WFAA. “It’s wintertime, so everyone’s using their furnace, so it’s not just these people that are at risk. This entire neighborhood could have gone up in flames because of lack of action. You let people stay in the house. Your machines weren’t working but you let people’s lives be in danger when it was so unnecessary. It’s really unbelievable."
Where are gas leaks in my neighborhood?
WFAA has mapped leaks in Atmos Energy’s gas lines in the city limits of Dallas from 2013 to 2017. Atmos reports leaks to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the utility. Each leak report lists the type of gas pipe that’s leaking, what caused it to leak and when it was repaired.
It also lists the “leak class,” or “grade” of leak, meaning how serious Atmos defines it. Here’s what those grades mean: A Grade 1 leak represents an existing or probable hazard to persons or property and requires immediate repair or continuous action until the conditions are no longer hazardous. A Grade 2 leak is recognized as being non-hazardous at the time of detection, but justifies scheduled repair based on probable future hazard. A Grade 3 leak is non-hazardous at the time of detection and can be reasonably expected to remain non-hazardous. (Source: Gas Piping Technology Committee’s “Guide for Gas Transmission and Distribution Piping Systems,” published by the American Gas Association)