Workers did not smell natural gas before hospital explosion, official says

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) None of the workers inside a building under construction that exploded on June 26 behind Coryell Memorial Hospital smelled natural gas before the deadly blast, the president of Lochridge-Priest, Inc., David “Skip” Burch said Thursday.

(Photo courtesy of Cody Self/file)

“The 12 to 15 men that were in that room independently have verified that they did not smell gas and if you can't smell it you can't protect yourself from it,” Burch said.

The explosion claimed the lives of three workers and left 13 others injured, some gravely.

Five Lochridge-Priest employees are among the injured and one, Michael Bruggman of Rogers, died.

Waco attorney Jim Dunnam, who represents five of the victims, says he’s looking into the why none of the workers reported smelling the distinctive rotten-egg odor of natural gas before the explosion.

"We're still investigating those types of issues whether gas pressure was properly regulated whether the gas was properly odorized that type a thing and we're also looking for the reason why there were so many men in that room that noted not smelling anything until the gas level had reached an explosive level,” he said Thursday.

Investigators have not identified the cause, but local officials have said it appeared the workers died in a natural gas explosion.

Natural gas is odorless, but a state odorization law was passed after the March 18, 1937 explosion at the New London School in Rusk County that killed at least 300 that’s responsible for the distinctive smell natural gas has now.

The odorant mercaptan is added to natural gas to make it easier to detect.

"I don't know who's to blame,” Burch said Thursday.

“I'm just telling you that there's no mercaptan in that gas that we smelled because if there had been we would have run from that mechanical room," he said.

"We want to truth to come out and we want everyone to be patient till the truth comes out."

Atmos Energy said its investigation after the explosion included “multiple leak surveys of the natural gas system in the area up to the outlet of the meter station,” which is the company’s only facility on the hospital campus.

“There were no leaks on Atmos Energy’s natural gas system,” he said.

“We also conducted testing of odorant levels in our natural gas and found the levels to be in compliance with regulations,” the company said.

Agencies investigating the explosion include the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as local authorities and experts hired by the families of victims.

Burch says he hopes to finish the job his company started at the hospital in honor of Bruggman and the injured Lochridge-Priest employees.

At the time of the explosion, workers were finishing up the hospital’s new central plant to house chillers and boilers as part of a 117,000-square-foot expansion for which ground was broken in November 2016 that includes a new 25-bed hospital wing, administration offices and a 16-bed rehabilitation facility.