Atmos investigated gas leaks night before fatal explosion, didn’t cut off service or evacuate

Atmos Investigated Gas Leaks Night Before Fatal Explosion, Didn't ...

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The evening before a house exploded in northwest Dallas and killed a 12-year-old girl, Atmos Energy crews were investigating and repairing gas leaks directly behind the house, company emails obtained by The Dallas Morning News show.

The emails also show that Atmos discovered at least 28 leaks in the neighborhood in the two days after the home blew up.

Linda Michelle Rogers

About 12 hours before the explosion, an email from an Atmos Energy employee to the Texas Railroad Commission described how the company had been “monitoring a situation in a residential area of Dallas near Love Field airport.’’ Atmos was investigating two separate leaks involving house fires and “measured gas was potentially a factor in both.”

The email continued: “Atmos crews are continuing to monitor the surrounding area for potential leaks and will make repairs as needed.” The fires occurred Feb. 21 and 22.

Stephanie Weidman of the Texas Railroad Commission tells other agency employees that Atmos called her the night before the house on Espanola Drive exploded in northwest Dallas, saying the fires were “due to cooking” and that the house fires weren’t near the house that exploded. Those houses share an alley.

The company did not evacuate residents or shut off gas distribution lines until after the Feb. 23 explosion knocked a home off its foundation on Espanola Drive, killing Linda Rogers, known as “Michellita” to family and friends. It wasn’t until Feb. 26 that the entire neighborhood was evacuated and Atmos cut off service to 2,800 residents.

Atmos is replacing steel pipes, which can be more vulnerable to leaks.

The News obtained the emails, among other records, through an open record request to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates and investigates pipeline safety. The federal National Transportation Safety Board is also examining the explosion.

Fires, gas leaks and a deadly explosion

After a week of fires, gas leaks and a deadly explosion, Atmos Energy, the only natural gas provider in the Dallas area, is replacing an entire neighborhood’s gas pipes. Nearly 2,800 people will be without gas during the construction project. People may stay in their homes, but construction may take up to three weeks to complete.

Feb. 23

Another round of evacuations is ordered, this time at the 3800 block of Cortez and the 3900 block of Wemdon. About 30 additional homes were evacuated around 2 a.m. Wednesday in the 9800 and 9900 blocks of Bowman Boulevard and the 9900 block of Chireno Street. Atmos says 390 homes and 90 apartment units have been evacuated.

March 1

Yet another round of evacuations is ordered. Atmos announces about 2,800 homes near the site of the deadly explosion will be without gas service for up to three weeks. More than 120 crews will be involved in around-the-clock repair and replacement work, the company says.

Gaye McElwain, a spokeswoman for the commission, declined to comment on whether Atmos followed all safety precautions before Rogers was killed.

“Those issues are still under investigation,” she said via email. “Pipeline safety staff was sharing the best information available at the time with other staff members during a quickly developing situation to ensure we responded with the personnel and resources necessary to protect the public.”

In this image provided to the National Transportation Safety Board by Atmos Energy, the locations of the Feb. 23, natural-gas related explosion (lot marked in yellow) and two homes destroyed by fire Feb. 21 and 22, (lots marked in green) are depicted.) A gas explosion caused the death of 12-year-old Linda Rogers.

Shortly after the house on Espanola Drive exploded, Stephanie Weidman of the commission told other agency employees in an email that Atmos called the night before and said a nearby home fire was “due to cooking.’’

Atmos was checking for leaks in the the area “per their emergency response procedures and found indications of a leak and repaired the leak last night. This house explosion is in the same neighborhood, but is not near the house that had the house fire last night.”

That account was incorrect: While the house fires and explosion were on different streets — Durango and Espanola drives — they are both in the 3500 block and separated by only an alley.

Weidman referred a request for comment to the commission’s media office.

Atmos declined to answer questions from The News about these emails, referring questions to the federal safety board. Officials there could not be reached for comment.

Construction worker Gerardo Esquivel, of Texas State Utility, works to remove an old steel pipe and gas meter in a backyard on Espanola Drive in Dallas this week.

The company also wouldn’t say whether proper safety protocols were followed after the first leaks were detected; such as whether the neighborhood should have been evacuated or alerted to the leaks, or how many more leaks have been found in the neighborhood.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, said it was unusual that Atmos seemed “caught unaware” about the larger safety problems in the neighborhood after two house fires.

He said more information is needed to determine whether Atmos acted properly. The trust focuses on operational pipeline safety in the public interest.

Neighbors said they smelled gas before the explosion.

Jesus Colorado lives a few houses down from the Rogers home on Espanola Drive. He said his own house shook when one of the house fires ignited. “It felt like an explosion,’’ not just a kitchen fire, he said.

Neighbors saw fire trucks and caution tape put up afterward. They also noticed road cones and work crews in the area, but thought it might be an issue with storm drainage due to heavy rains that week, Colorado said.

“Nobody said anything about the gas” to him or his family, he said.

Atmos has blamed the explosion on weather, shifting clay soil and aging steel pipes, which are more prone to leaks. The company refused to identify other Dallas neighborhoods that have potentially dangerous steel or cast iron pipes.

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Just four hours before the explosion, Atmos crews checked a gas leak in Juan Armilla’s back yard. Armilla lives on Durango Drive, the street where the two houses caught fire.

“That could’ve been my kid flown across the room instead of their kid,” Armilla said, leaning against a pickup a few blocks from his house. “I’m the one who had the gas leak in the backyard.”

John Barr, an attorney for Linda’s family, said Friday that Atmos should have evacuated the neighborhood after the fires one street over from Linda’s house.

“If you think it’s bad, why in the Sam Hill aren’t you evacuating people?” Barr said. “Why would you leave that little girl and her family in distress when they knew? They knew.”

Barr said Atmos crews were on Linda’s block when the house exploded: “They got there before the fire department.”

Staff writers Holly Hacker and Dana Branham contributed to this report.

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