GROTON - Splintered wood, shattered glass, and flaming debris showered a neighborhood yesterday when a house exploded after a utility contractor checking pipes apparently triggered a natural gas leak. No one was hurt.
The precise cause of the 1:29 p.m. blast that destroyed the house on Willowdale Street and severely damaged two adjacent houses was under investigation last night. It was the sixth home in the region destroyed by a gas explosion since 2002.
Officials stressed that there is no common cause among the blasts. One explosion killed two girls, another injured six people. Various causes have been blamed for the accidents, including construction mishaps and a faulty work order that led workers to connect a high-pressure main to low-pressure distribution lines, flooding homes with gas. In some cases, the explosions destroyed the evidence officials needed to declare the cause.
Yesterday's explosion near Groton Center, some 40 miles northwest of Boston, occurred as a National Grid utility technician was following up on a call from a contractor doing routine inspection work on the street, state and utility officials said.
According to National Grid spokeswoman Jackie Barry, the contractor, whose name and company were not immediately available, told utility officials he had accidentally pierced the underground gas line feeding the house with a "bar holer" probe, which can be poked through soil or pavement to help identify a gas leak source.
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said officials were in "the preliminary phases of conducting an investigation."
Barry said that "what the contractor did may have contributed to the incident" and that the company was "cooperating fully" with an investigation by Coan's office and engineers at the Department of Public Utilities.
Fire Chief Joseph L. Bosselait said, "We're very lucky" no one was home. "If this was at night with people sleeping, it would have been another story."
The blast was just a few hundred feet away from the Groton Commons apartment complex.
By last evening, 12 homeowners still had no gas service, said David Graves, National Grid spokesman. Bentley Herget, Groton building inspector, allowed owners of the two adjacent houses to remove personal belongings before ordering the homes boarded up for repairs.
David Fitzgerald, who records show owns the house that was destroyed, declined to comment.
David Vlahos, who lives two houses away, said the Fitzgeralds had been conducting extensive renovations. "It's a shock," Vlahos said. "I feel bad for them."
Allan Woodhead, an Australian visiting friends on Willowdale Street who had gone out to see a movie just minutes before the blast, said, "It's scary stuff."
He described his friends getting a cellphone call from a neighbor telling them "that the house is no more."
More than 1.3 million Bay State households use natural gas for heat, cooking, or appliances.
Peter J. Howe can be reached at email@example.com.