The gas explosion that destroyed a Needham home Nov. 4 is under investigation by local and state officials and could become subject to federal review as well.
Investigators from the state Department of Public Utilities (DPU), the Needham Fire Department, the state Department of Fire Safety and Eversource were all working at the 126 Prince St. site this week. They sifted through the debris from the two-story garrison-style colonial that had to be demolished after being heavily damaged by an explosion during routine service by an Eversoure contractor.
A preliminary investigation by the state fire marshal’s office classified the event as an accident. “The fire marshal’s office determines whether an explosion was criminal in nature,” said Jake Wark, spokesperson for the office. “In this case, it was accidental.”
The follow-up investigations will take a broader look at the scene in an attempt to learn whether other factors may have contributed to the explosion and whether there were violations of state and federal pipeline management safety codes.
The explosion occurred shortly before 8 a.m., when the four residents of the home were not there. The state fire marshal reported that a backhoe operated by an Eversource contractor came in contact with the gas line, releasing gas into the home and sparking the explosion.
The Needham Fire Department responded and issued a second alarm soon after arriving at the scene, drawing response from multiple nearby communities. Once it was confirmed that gas was no longer being supplied to the house, firefighters began hosing down the site.
The damage was confined to the home itself, but was so extensive that officials agreed the house posed a public safety concern.
Joe Prondak, Needham’s building commissioner, arrived on the scene less than an hour after the explosion and conducted an assessment to determine next steps.
“When I got there, the fire was out,” he said. “At first we thought it was just the one-story portion in the back of the house that had to come down because that was literally ready to collapse.
”We thought once we had that down we’d be in pretty good shape. But once we got that down we saw how bad the rest of the house was.”
After consulting with Tom Conroy, Needham’s fire chief, Prondak said consensus was reached that the building was in danger of imminent collapse, and public safety considerations dictated that it be demolished.
“The chimney had shifted. There was a steel beam holding up the second floor and the roof had shifted and completely lost one of its columns,” said Prondak.
It would have been too risky to allow entrance into the house for the retrieval of personal items, he said. “The other columns were sitting on a wooden wall down below that also had shifted a good 6 inches. It was vulnerable to any good vibration or wind even. We just couldn’t take the chance.”
By midafternoon, the house had been reduced to rubble.
Multiple reports to come
A spokesperson for the DPU, which regulates Eversource, said the utility notified them of the explosion. DPU’s Pipeline Safety Division was on site over the weekend and again during the week.
According to DPU spokesperson Danielle Burley, Eversource has 30 days to file a violation report.
Burley said the department will need to determine which regulatory entity has jurisdiction over the pipe. “The pipe could be interstate, which would be federal jurisdiction. It could be customer-owned,” she said.
If the pipe is under DPU jurisdiction, the regulatory body will review the results of the various investigations before issuing a final incident report. “If there are violations of state or federal pipeline safety laws then enforcement actions would be issued as appropriate,” Burley said.
Eversource issued a statement saying the utility “continues working to support the state’s investigation while separately conducting our own internal investigation to determine exactly what happened while our contractor crew was working at the home. At this time, it would be premature to speculate on any potential findings until both investigations are complete.”
Conroy said his department is working on its own report required under the National Fire Incident Report System. That report will be sent to the state fire marshal’s office.
The home was being rented by the Harikumar family. Harihara Harikumar said he was able to retrieve only a few documents before it was demolished.
On the day of the blast, Harikumar said Eversource told him it would arrange for housing for his family for five days. On Tuesday, Eversource spokesperson Christopher McKinnon said, “We are in contact and working directly with the displaced residents.”
The “Be Kind Needham” Facebook page has been soliciting donations on behalf of the Harikumar family as they wait to close on a house in Walpole in February.