Tuesday, March 11, 2014
BATH — Dale Fussell was known among her friends and family members as a generous soul, someone who lived frugally herself but was eager to help others and to cheer them up when they were down.
By lunchtime every Tuesday, the 64-year-old would be helping prepare the evening meal at The Neighborhood Cafe, a soup kitchen run by the UCC Church on Congress Avenue near her Hyde Park neighborhood.
“She knew when a friend needed a shoulder to cry on. She knew when it was time to start singing and liven people up and say, ‘Hey, things could be worse in your life,’” said her friend Patti Silva, who encouraged her to volunteer at The Neighborhood Cafe. The ministry distributes 100 to 150 meals on Tuesday nights.
Friends and family shared fond memories of Fussell Wednesday, the day after she was killed when her apartment exploded.
A memorial was erected at the site of the explosion, with flowers, a card made by neighborhood children and a cross made from fence pickets.
Investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office determined that the cause of the 5 a.m. blast was a propane gas leak at 31 Bluff Road, the adjacent apartment in the duplex. They picked through the rubble all day Tuesday and now believe that a coupling between the exterior supply pipes and an interior hose feeding the heating unit itself loosened allowing gas to escape, State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said.
The connection appears to have broken when the heater was jostled or moved, even though it is bolted to the gypsum-board walls. The exterior supply pipes enter the house through holes in the brick and are sealed in place.
The heavier-than-air gas would have leaked into the space a few inches deep between the interior and exterior walls, then down into the crawl space beneath the apartments, Thomas said. There is no way to know how long the gas would have been leaking, he said. The 1939 construction would have allowed air movement to dissipate the gas, so it didn’t accumulate, he said. But investigators surmise that the weekend blizzard that dumped more than 2 feet of snow on Bath could have sealed off the crawl space beneath the single-story building, allowing gas to accumulate to an explosive amount, Thomas said.
An ignition source — possibly electrical — ignited the gas, creating a massive explosion that flattened the house, sent debris flying more than 200 yards and ignited an intense fire amid the remains of the building.
Kenneth Hooper, who lived in 31 Bluff Road, had left home to work at the nearby McDonald’s a half hour before the explosion. The apartment complex managers said Wednesday they have not heard from him and it was unclear where he is staying. A manager at McDonald’s said Hooper did not want to speak to reporters.
The propane heating system for the Atlantic Townhouse Apartments was installed in 2000 when Keystone Management took over management of the 144 units owned by Eaton Tarbell LLC.
Propane service technicians from the management company and from Irving Oil, which supplies the complex’s propane, worked through the night Tuesday, checking the gas supplies to all the other apartments for leaks, according to state officials and the management company.
Chris Smith said members of the Fire Department visited his apartment to make sure his heater was working properly. That gave him some peace of mind, though like many residents, he has a new skepticism about propane.
Tasha Dyer, who works for Keystone, said the explosion was a tragic accident but the company still plans to replace the connectors between the supply pipes and the heater in each unit.
“This will never happen again,” she said.
Lisa King, who lives two buildings down from the exploded one, said she had trouble sleeping and is still nervous about the propane. She said she prefers to use her electric fireplace, which she said does a more effective job heating her two story unit than the propane heater and does not add significantly to her electric bill. But they still rely on the propane heater, a Rinnai Energy Saver 1004F, at night.
Mike Cyr, who lives a couple buildings away from the blast site, said he’s glad the company is taking steps to improve safety.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen all the time. It could be just a coincidence it did happen,” he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”
The Office of the State Medical Examiner on Wednesday confirmed that the person killed in the explosion was Fussell, who had lived in 29 Bluff Road for many years. The autopsy was to be completed today to determine the cause of death definitively.
A memorial on a fence at the site of a propane gas explosion on Bluff Road that claimed the life of 64-year-old Dale Ann Fussel.
Staff photo by Derek Davis