Gas company: Explosions rare occurrences

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

While investigators haven’t pinpointed a cause for Wednesday’s deadly explosion at the Clytie Calton residence, members of the family have said they smelled gas prior to the explosion.
Calton died Saturday from injuries sustained in that explosion.

If it turns out to be caused by natural gas, it won’t be the first such explosion in Portales with deadly consequences. On June 28, 1982, an explosion that collapsed the roof of a home and touched off an inferno killed six people just a few blocks north of the Calton home.

Jeff Buell of PNM, the natural gas utility that serves Portales, said explosions such as the one this week are very rare occurrences, but when they do happen, they have the potential to be devastating.

PNM officials say it takes an accumulation of 4 to 14 percent natural gas in the air for an explosion or fire to occur. Without that amount of gas, they say ignition cannot chemically occur.

Buell said his associates tell him often when an gas explosion occurs, a fire is associated with the blast, especially in the case of a leak or faulty appliance. No fire was associated with the blast at the Calton home.

Buell said he wanted to make it clear that PNM wasn’t saying anyone had done anything wrong at this scene, but in a general sense he wanted to remind people of the danger when something goes wrong with natural gas.

“Natural gas needs to be in pipes, not in the air,” Buell said. “You need to treat that very seriously if you smell it.”

He said it was likely that natural gas was associated with the explosion at the Calton home but it was too early to say the exact cause.

“We’ve performed a leak survey from the gas main to the house and no leaks were found there,” Buell said.

The gas company representative said a chemical odorant called mercaptan is added to natural gas, which is naturally odorless, as a safety feature. He says the odor is a rotten egg smell that people easily recognize.

“If you detect that odor inside your home, leave your home and call the gas company from a neighbor’s or a cell phone outside of the home,” Buell said. “Possible leak calls are placed at highest priority by our service crews.”

He says it is important not to operate anything such as a light switch or phone while leaving the house that might spark an explosion.

In the 1982 explosion at the home of former Portales banker David Jones at 18th Street and Avenue H, five people were killed immediately, including Jones’ wife Madelle, three of the couple’s grandchildren, and another child who was a guest in the home. David Jones, who was thrown clear of the blast, later died from his injuries. Others in the family were trapped in the debris and resulting fire.

Investigators working that accident found a 65-inch gap in the pipeline. It was suspected at the time that the line had been disturbed by workers a month earlier and gas had slowly seeped through the soil and accumulated underneath the home.

Witnesses interviewed at the time of that accident recalled another explosion on that same lot that leveled a home 30 years previously.

In the 1982 reports of the Jones home explosion, a reference was made to a 1949 natural gas explosion at L.L. Brown School in Portales, which crippled a school teacher, Alice Watson. Madelle McCormack (Jones) was a student teacher for Watson, but she was not in the classroom at the time.

Safety tips
• Have furnaces and other gas appliances serviced every year by a professional.
• Leave any dwelling where you smell natural gas immediately and call the gas company.
• Make sure you know where utility lines are located before digging.
• Install carbon monoxide monitors along with smoke detectors in your home.
• Make sure batteries in those detectors are changed twice a year.

Courtesy: PNM