GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 25, 2009

Resident 'critical' in Eastern Ave. explosion; nearby gas leak found

By Richard Gaines

'I've never seen anything like that': Neighbors spring into action after blast

VIDEO: Charlie Foster talks about what happened moments after the explosion 

VIDEO: Neighbors have been complaining since Dec. 26, 2008 of gas fumes in the area

Click here to watch raw footage of the aftermath

Click here to view a photo slideshow of rescue workers during the aftermath

 A powerful explosion near the site of where a gas leak was later discovered rocked an East Gloucester neighborhood yesterday morning, blowing up an Eastern Avenue home, badly damaging houses on both sides and seriously injuring the leveled house's occupant, a longtime city police officer.

Patrolman Wayne Sargent, 57, who resided at 76 Eastern Ave. with his dog and maintained the property to Garden Club award-winning standards, was assisted out of the wreckage by a neighbor and relative. Sargent was taken by helicopter to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

A Mass. General spokesperson and city Police Lt. Joseph Aiello said last night that Sargent was in critical condition. The nature of his injuries were not revealed, but Mayor Carolyn Kirk announced at a 5 p.m. news conference that "we expect a full recovery."

National Grid, which according to police and residents had been working in the neighborhood for more than a month searching for the source of a persistent gas smell, found a gas leak under the street opposite the still-smouldering remains of Sargent's celebrated property, and eliminated it by late afternoon, according to John Higgins, the utility's operation commander on the scene.

The cause of the explosion was uncertain, with the state fire marshal's office scheduled to arrive this morning to begin an investigation. Two other leaks, however, were also found, Higgins announced at a meeting of emergency offices and responders in the mayor's office. But he said they were venting to the air, and the leaks could not be considered dangerous.

An hour after the explosion, gas was easily noticed within a radius of well more than 100 yards.

National Grid announced a leak line: 800-231-5325. Higgins said he did not believe there was any further danger, but the Fire Department said the blast zone remained a concern with hot spots in the rubble that would not be attacked until today.

No other injuries were immediately reported, although Sargent's dog Penny was missing and believed killed in the explosion, which occurred just after 8 a.m.

The concussive force was so intense that Sargent's front door was blown off the hinges and into the middle of Eastern Avenue, where it lay while firefighters from all cape communities, police offices, and National Grid crew arrived to gain control over scene. The metal bulkhead for the cellar was blown high up into a backyard tree, where it snagged and remained last night.

Fire erupted seconds after the explosion literally shook the neighborhood that is somewhat centered on Jeff's Variety, just up from the Route 128 Extension, and burned so hot that the siding of the home at 78 Eastern Ave., where the Trimmins family lives, melted.

"The whole neighborhood shook," said Celeste Demko who felt the blast in her home on Abbort Road, about 100 yards away. "Every single person came out over the shock of it."

"It reminded you of a 10.10 earthquake, I felt the concussion," said Tory MacNeil, of 6 Harrison Ave., about 100 yards north and uphill from the epicenter of the explosion.

"It just blew apart," said Ann Marie Parisi of 70 Eastern Ave., standing in Jeff's Variety.

The concussion also blew out windows on both sides of 74 Eastern, the home of the Jackson family, and sent pieces of the Sargent house through the facing wall of 78 Eastern.

"A piece of board from Wayne's house went through an exterior wall to the right side (of 78)," said building inspector Bill Sanborn. Debris launched by the explosion of the house — up to and including Lottery tickets — rained down on the fire scene in the minutes after the explosion. Both adjacent homes were vacated, as was 77 Eastern, directly across the street, due to the shut off of utilities in the neighborhood.

Building inspector William Sanborn declared only 74 Eastern unsafe, while the return to other homes was contingent on the restoration of electricity and water.

Speaking of 74 Eastern, he said, "I don't think it will fall down, I don't know."

The avenue itself, the main route between Rockport and Route 128, remained closed last night and was not expected to be reopened until at least 4 p.m. today. Vehicles were detoured around the disaster site via Marina Drive and Bass Avenue.

At Jeff's Variety (71 Eastern), where residents gather in normal times for coffee, conversation and backyard news, the talk was about the chronic smell of gas — actually the trace addition that warn people of the presence of the otherwise nearly undetectable odor of natural gas.

Higgins deflected questions about the problem of a gas smell in the neighborhood.

"We're looking at records to see when we've been there," Higgins, National Grid's ranking official on the scene, told the news conference in the City Hall Auditorium.

But Police Lt. Joseph Aiello told the Times the utility had five operations in the street in roughly the last month. This report coincides with the statements of neighborhood residents, who said they began calling in complaints of a gas smell beginning on Dec. 26.

Jeff Tarr, who owns the variety store, said he recalled that two years ago, they dug up in front of (Sargent's), and added that recently he has been smelling "gas in front of the store." Others in the store recounted seeing National Grid crews on Harrison Avenue, on Eastern Avenue in front of Sargent's house, and in a manhole, where the leak was apparently located and sealed after yesterday's explosion.

Higgins said National Grid had a team of 35 people on the scene and promised a daily check of each street with a gas line until the situation is fully understood and resolved.

Police patrolman Larry Ingersoll, a close friend of Sargent's, said his fellow officer took inordinate pride in his property, decorating its porch with hanging plants each spring.

"He got awards each year from the Garden Club," Ingersoll said. "The hedges in front were so straight you could drop a quarter on them."

Inside, he said, his friend decorated handsomely with antiques and had "Tonka trucks" and toys from the 1940s. The house was the home to his mother, and Sargent later added an addition to care for her in her final years.

Sargent has been a member of the Gloucester Police Department for some 30 years, and was one of eight officers commended for good judgment earlier this month.

The eight responded successfully when a Fair Street resident locked himself in his apartment and threw knives at officers; they were commended by the Police Department for bringing the man into custody without a death or serious injury occurring.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com

VIDEO: Charlie Foster talks about what happened moments after the explosion 

VIDEO: Neighbors have been complaining since Dec. 26, 2008 of gas fumes in the area

Click here to watch raw footage of the aftermath

Click here to view a photo slideshow of rescue workers during the aftermath