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Wichita Kansas--Faulty Gas Pipe Installation Causes School Explosion

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  • Wichita Kansas--Faulty Gas Pipe Installation Causes School Explosion

    Code violation found

    City says gas lines were altered after inspection

    BY JOSH FUNK

    The Wichita Eagle


    The contractors building Marshall Middle School's science wing violated city code by failing to have gas pipes reinspected before last week's natural gas explosion, city officials said Wednesday.

    If the gas pipes had been pressure-tested again, the pipe fitting that plumbers failed to cap after rerouting a gas line to a teacher's desk would have been caught, Wichita fire Capt. Steve Griner said Wednesday.

    The line was rerouted shortly after an inspection and pressure test were conducted Oct. 19, said fire Lt. Brad Crisp, who was the lead investigator.

    "It appears to be an oversight," Griner said.

    Neither district officials nor the project's general contractor could say who decided to reroute the line or who approved the work.

    The explosion blew apart the nearly complete classroom wing at Marshall, forced the district to relocate 420 students and damaged the existing building. No students were in school, but two workers were injured.

    District officials don't yet know when students will be able to return to Marshall because their structural examination isn't done.

    The pressure tests, which are designed to find leaks, are part of the inspections required before gas lines can be approved for use.

    Once they have been tested, the gas is usually turned on, and the lines stay pressurized from that point on, said Kurt Schroeder, superintendent of Wichita's Office of Central Inspection.

    Central Inspection conducts such tests before issuing a permit allowing new construction to be occupied.

    Sometimes the pipes have to be changed after they have been tested, Schroeder said, but under city code the contractor must call his office for a new inspection or apply for a new permit when that happens.

    "That didn't happen, and no one called our inspection staff," he said.

    Schroeder couldn't say how common it is for contractors to change gas pipes after they have been inspected. The city does between 10,000 and 15,000 plumbing inspections a year.

    When a city inspector last went to Marshall on Nov. 22 -- two days before the blast -- the drop ceiling had been installed, Schroeder said, concealing the gas pipes.

    Fire officials didn't assign fault as part of their investigation, and district officials said they would let the insurance companies decide who to blame.

    Violating the section of city code that requires inspections is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and six months in jail.

    Fire investigators said the source of the gas leak was obvious.

    One of the three openings of a T-shaped fitting remained open, allowing the gas to pour out of a ¾-inch-wide opening into the area between the first and second floors, Griner said.

    The gas accumulated in the area between the drop ceiling for the first floor and the concrete of the second floor.

    Griner said the gas ran for about one hour and 19 minutes before something ignited it around 8:25 a.m.

    Investigators could not determine what ignited the gas because there were several possible sources, Griner said. It could have been a light switch, construction equipment or even static electricity.

    On the morning of the explosion, about 12 construction workers were working on finishing details.

    Greg Harman, president of the project's general contractor, Walz Harman Huffman Construction, said his job superintendent was installing a handrail in the stairway while plumbers from Commercial Mechanical worked in the labs.

    "I understand the plumbers were testing the Bunsen burners at the science tables," Harman said.

    The mechanical and plumbing subcontractor that installed the gas pipes, Commercial Mechanical Inc., declined to answer questions Wednesday.

    And Harman said he doesn't know why the pipes were changed.

    "I don't really know who made the decision or why it was made," Harman said.

    Ideally, one of the plumbers would have consulted Harman's job superintendent before such as change, he said, but that doesn't always happen.

    For example, if Harman's job superintendent had been away from Marshall getting materials, the plumbers might have called the mechanical engineer to approve a change.

    The district doesn't know who made the decision either, said Martin Libhart, the chief operations officer.

    Libhart said it's too early to decide whether the district should continue to do business with Commercial Mechanical, which is the mechanical contractor on six other projects in the district.

    "We have no prior concerns with them," Libhart said.

    Bernard Patrick, who designed the mechanical systems for the Marshall project, said he has always been pleased with Commercial Mechanical's work, including its work on Marshall.

    "They are one of the few contractors I feel confident recommending on any job," said Patrick, of Mechanical Consultants Inc.

    Commercial Mechanical lists Patrick as a reference on its Web site.

    The project at Marshall is part of the district's $285 million bond issue, and most schools will receive some renovation as part of that.

    Libhart said he's sure all the other projects are safe.

    After the explosion, the district ordered the architects on every construction project to inspect the gas pipes in the schools they are working on.

    Libhart said the district is looking at how it handled the Marshall project, but he doesn't know of anything that should have been done differently.

    "In terms of what happened and why it happened, it's hard to imagine anything we could have done, as the owner, to prevent this," Libhart said.

    District officials hope students will be able to return to Marshall after the holiday break.

    But they won't know how long repairs to the existing building will take until they can clear away some of the debris and get a closer look.

    In the meantime, the district is trying to retrieve some of the teachers' and students' belongings from the school.

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