State fire marshal: Human error caused Friday’s natural gas explosion in downtown Springfield

Human error was the cause of Friday’s natural gas explosion in downtown Springfield that leveled a strip club, damaged dozens of other buildings, and injured at least 19 people, officials said today.

In a statement, State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan’s office said the blast at Scores Gentleman’s Club at 453 Worthington St. occurred when a worker from Columbia Gas of Massachusetts who was investigating a gas odor accidentally punctured a high-pressure gas line at the foundation of the building.

“His examination appears to have been an appropriate distance from where older markings on the sidewalk indicated where the gas line was,” the statement said. "However, the markIngs were incorrect and his metal probe inadvertently punctured” the line.

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The blast, which also displaced hundreds of people, occurred at around 5:25 p.m.

On Friday night, a dancer at the club told the Globe that she had smelled gas in the building over the past four months. She said the club’s owner used deodorizers to mask the scent.

Sheila Doiron, a spokeswoman for Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, said today in a phone interview that the company has no record of prior complaints from the club about gas odors.

“We went back years,” she said. “There were no calls to that premises from anyone [who] said there was a gas odor.”

According to the statement, investigators are still trying to determine the source of the odor that prompted the worker to respond on Friday.

“The investigative team believes that the gas from the leak entered the building around the pipe and at some point reached the correct explosive level of gas and air, which was ignited by any of many possible ignition sources inside the building,” the statement said.

Officials did not identify the worker this afternoon.

Doiron said he is a “longterm” employee, but she could not say how long he has been with the company. She said he is an employee in good standing but declined to say whether he will resume his normal duties this week.

“Once he realized the service line was struck, his attention immediately turned to the safety of the people in the facility,” she said, adding that he entered the building to begin evacuating the people inside.

Daniel D. Kelly, a lawyer for Scores, said in a phone interview that the club is reviewing its legal options. Asked if those options included litigation, he said, “including everything.”

He also said Columbia Gas had taken readings at the club about three months ago and told employees at the time that everything was fine.

Doiron said the company performed a routine inspection of the building’s interior piping over the summer.

“We completed that and we found that the inside piping passed inspection,” she said.

Investigators expect to conclude the scene examination today, and the Department of Public Utilities is now taking over the probe, according to Coan’s office.

Reginald Zimmerman, a spokesman for the state agency that oversees the utilities department, said investigators will work to determine whether Columbia Gas had all of the proper safety measures in place at the time of the explosion.

He said the review could take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and he declined to comment when asked if the company could face any sanctions if it is ultimately found to have violated any safety regulations.

Columbia Gas will open a temporary claims center for people affected by the blast on Monday in Room 222 at City Hall from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., the statement said.

Doiron said people affected by the blast can also file a claim by calling 800-869-1876 ext. 1, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday.

“Our primary emphasis at this point is to take care of the people affected by the situation,” she said.

In a statement, Mayor Domenic J. Sarno credited the company with its “ongoing cooperation during another disaster that has impacted the City of Springfield. I am pleased that they have pledged their full cooperation with all city and state investigatory officials.”

Thomas Walsh, a spokesman for the mayor, said that 115 residential units, a mix of apartments and condominiums, were affected by the blast and hundreds of people were at least temporarily displaced. He did not have a more precise figure.

Walsh said some residents had been permitted to return to their homes as of Sunday afternoon, but he could not say how many. Nobody stayed overnight at a shelter the city opened on Friday, he said, though some people came by to receive information about the recovery effort.

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