‘We’re scared,’ South Philly residents say after city officials reveal explosion cause

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Several rowhouses were destroyed by an explosion and fire that killed two people on the 1400 block of S. 8th Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Several rowhouses were destroyed by an explosion and fire that killed two people on the 1400 block of S. 8th Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

South Philadelphia residents want to know if they are safe after learning that a cracked gas main caused the explosion that killed two of their neighbors and destroyed five rowhouses.

“I live 100 feet from the explosion and I have not heard from any of you guys,” said Matt Alan, addressing city officials at a news conference Thursday.

“Two people were killed, but nothing. We’re scared,” he said. “We don’t know if it’s safe to go in our homes. You guys come up here and do this dog and pony show in front of the media and it’s bullshit. I haven’t gotten one flyer.”

Before the news conference, city officials had described the Dec.19 explosion on the 1400 block of S. 8th Street as “gas-fed” but said little else. Officials and politicians assembled Thursday confirmed the cause was natural gas that leaked from a cracked main servicing the block.

The 6-inch cast iron gas line that cracked was built in 1928, said Philadelphia Gas Works Executive Vice President and Acting COO Douglas Moser.

Philadelphia Gas Works has not yet determined what caused the break, but Moser said that it wouldn’t have had to be leaking long to create such a conflagration.

“Less than 30 minutes, I would assume,” Moser said.

The Pennsylvania Utility Commission is investigating the matter, city officials said, and getting answers “will take some time,” said Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, as he read the state agency’s statement to the room.

The state agency did not send a representative to the press conference.

“They are continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding this incident along with whether there are any violations of state or federal pipeline safety regulations,” said Thiel.

Residents have reported that the Water and Streets departments had been working on the street earlier in the autumn. But Water Commissioner Randy Hayman said that there were no work orders on the block at the time of the explosion. Since the tragedy, the block has experienced seven water main breaks, including a new one that occurred hours before the press conference.

Hayman noted that the water main that services the block dates to before the Civil War, and was installed in 1859.

Antiquated infrastructure runs through the city and many of the residents who spoke out at the press conference expressed fears about further incidents on the block and asked whether other areas could be in danger.

“Our gas mains are old, from the 1920s, so we should all be concerned about that,” said Steven Wigrizer, a prominent trial lawyer with Wapner Newman, who is representing the family of Brian Diu, who died in the blast. “But I am also concerned because it’s been nearly a month … I want to know whether my home and family are at risk if a gas main in front of my house could fail.”

City Managing Director Brian Abernathy addressed the concerns of residents head-on, focusing on those who live on the block and were unhappy with what they describe as inadequate communication from city officials.

He assured them that the street would not be reopened until the investigation and all the cleanup work is completed.

“You all have been through hell, and I can’t imagine what it’s been like waking up every day,” Abernathy said. “We are doing everything we can to address those concerns. We’re trying to do our best to get this done as quickly as possible. It’s not going to be fast enough. It’s not going to happen as quickly as you want it to and I apologize for that.”

The neighborhood where the explosion took place is ethnically and linguistically diverse. Some neighbors said that non-English speaking residents struggled to keep abreast of the situation and that translation services provided by the city were inadequate. The Passyunk Square Civic Association reports that some Spanish-speaking residents first received essential information after the tragedy from their volunteer group because they could not find municipal authorities who spoke their language.

Thiel acknowledged that the city does not always have the on-demand ability to provide translation for the multiplicity of languages spoken in Philadelphia. But he said they had multiple people on the scene who spoke Spanish and other languages, and that they are looking at providing text notifications in non-English languages.

The Water Department reports that it flyered homes in the area with notices in English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. The Passyunk Square Civic Association has been performing outreach in those languages, as well as Indonesian and Vietnamese.

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