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Selectmen Order State Probe of Columbia Gas

Seekonk officials say it is a miracle nobody was killed when an active gas main was ruptured in the Maple Avenue fire.

Seekonk selectmen are demanding to know why a gas main was active at the condemned mill on Maple Avenue that burned down this week when all utilities were supposed to have been shut off three years ago. The main was ruptured during the effort to put out the fire on Tuesday, causing a dangerous gas leak that lasted nearly three hours.

Selectman Gary Sagar, who is a retired Attleboro fire captain, requested at the board meeting on Wednesday for a state investigation of the gas main issue. He said he was part of the team that determined the mill should be condemned three years ago, and that Bay State Gas (now Columbia Gas) said at the time that gas service had been shut off.

"It is an absolute miracle that we are not sitting here planning funerals for a mass casualty incident," Sagar said.

His colleagues on the board supported the call for an investigation. Board Chair Francis Cavaco said he wanted a Columbia representative to appear at next week's selectmen meeting.

Seekonk Fire Capt. Michael Healey said the main was ruptured at 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday. A call was immediately made to Columbia, and a company representative did not arrive until 43 minutes later. The person who showed up was unaware that he was coming to an active fire scene.

It took another two hours to turn off the main, which only happened when Healey and the Rehoboth fire chief "pretty much by accident located the shut-off underneath a pile of leaves on Maple Avenue," Healey said. 

"There was two hours and 47 minutes that we had natural gas at an active fire scene expelling into the air in the town of Seekonk ... putting the operators of that equipment, the firefighters on the scene [and] any area resident at a huge risk," Healey said. "Their response to this incident, in my opinion, was slow, unprofessional and pretty much lackadaisical."

It was also discovered during this crisis that a gas valve on Central Avenue (Route 152) did not work. Sagar on Wednesday also requested, and received the support of his colleagues, for an analysis by Columbia and the Seekonk Water District to determine that all gas and water valves are functioning in the vicinity of the Route 152 reconstruction project.

"It's ludicrous that we're spending close to $5 million to rebuild the road and then you can't even shut off the gas line," Sagar said.

Selectman Bill McLintock said Columbia had acted "almost criminal" by not making sure the gas main was turned off because children are known to go into the abandoned mill. He said that issue and that a valve was not functioning were further examples of problems the town has had with the utility.

"The lack of urgency that the gas company seems to have in terms of what damage it does, number one to our roads, how they go about fixing them and everything else is really something that this board has been talking about for a while," he said. "This is indicative of the total disregard that they have."

Carol Bragg May 03, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Even without Columbia Gas negligence, there was the possibility of loss of life and neighboring homes from the fire itself. How do we prevent a fire like this from happening again in the future in a condemned building that becomes a youth hangout? When do we start the problem solving?
paul May 03, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Agree, plenty of targets in town like the old Showcase and Hunts mill tavern. When this fire started and went out of control utilities should have been called to the scene in stand by status.
Carol Bragg May 03, 2012 at 09:01 PM
Time could be spent more productively thinking about what we might have done differently and what we can do to make sure that this doesn't happen again in the future. What are the procedures we need to put into place? It's time for self-reflection, not pointing fingers.

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