Saturday, 2:15 PM
Investigation continues in Gloucester home explosion
(John Blanding/Globe Staff)
Firefighters on Sunday hosed down debris after an explosion leveled a home on Eastern Avenue.
By Dan Peleschuk, Globe Correspondent, and James Vaznis and Maria Cramer, Globe Staff
GLOUCESTER - Wayne Sargent remained in critical condition today as investigators try to determine what sparked an explosion that destroyed the home of the 59-year-old police officer and seared his face and hands.
Fire investigators have been at the scene on Eastern Avenue since early yesterday morning, trying to pinpoint what caused the blast. National Grid found a leak in a gas pipe under the street in front of the home, but officials have not yet identified it as the cause of the explosion. At police headquarters, most thoughts today were with Sargent, a 30-year veteran of the department.
(Hear 911 calls made after the blast / Gloucester Police)
"Everybody's concerned," said Lieutenant Thomas Williams. "That's what everybody is hoping for, that he pulls through. Everything else doesn't matter. That's what we're thinking of."
Police Chief John Beaudette described Sargent's condition as "guarded," and said that doctors had him in an induced coma to ease the pain.
"He's a great cop," Beaudette said. "Really well respected. Really well liked."
Sargent returned home yesterday morning after a quiet night of patrolling and heard strange noises coming from the furnace in his basement. As he called his oil company and began to walk downstairs with his cellphone, the house exploded, blowing off the roof and all the walls.
The dazed Sargent, who sustained burns to his face and hands and a gash to the head, was able to climb out of the basement over the smoldering debris with the help of some neighbors.
Moments later the basement erupted into flames. Sargent remained today at Massachusetts General Hospital, according to a hospital spokeswoman. He
An initial investigation into the explosion, which occurred shortly before 8 a.m., revealed a leak in a gas pipe under the street in front of the home, at 76 Eastern Ave., said John Higgins, a National Grid spokesman, at a City Hall news conference yesterday afternoon.
However, he declined to identify the leak as the cause of the explosion.
"There was a gas leak, and we moved to make a repair," Higgins said. "It is now complete."
The revelation followed nearly a month of phone calls by residents to city officials and National Grid reporting the smell of gas in the neighborhood. Now, city and state leaders are seeking answers about what happened and whether the explosion could have been averted. The state fire marshal and State Police are heading the investigation.
"The house just disappeared from the street," said David Swift, a neighbor who rushed to Sargent's side. He had been buying coffee at a nearby convenience store. "I didn't think anybody would come out of that house after hearing that blast."
Earlier in the day, David Graves, another National Grid spokesman, said he could not comment on any gas odor reports or any possible subsequent repairs made because he did not have access to the records.
"It appears that natural gas was the cause, but how it entered the house and how it may have ignited is under investigation," Graves said.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who was at the scene, said her top priority was making sure the neighborhood was secure. She added, "I will not be satisfied until we get some answers."
The blast seriously damaged two neighboring houses, blowing out the windows to one while charring the side of the other house. Both houses will probably be condemned, the mayor said. Utility workers quickly shut off gas and electrical service to the area while police blocked off access to the street.
Gayle Silva, a sales clerk at nearby Jeff's Variety, saw the explosion through a store window as she waited on customers.
"There were red flames everywhere," she said. "I've never seen anything like that before in my life."
The impact rattled the store's shelves, knocking off cans and other items, Silva said.
Around the corner, Barbara Kelly heard the boom just after she lit her fireplace.
She ran to the door, opened it, and saw a big ball of fire. She yelled to her two young children to get out of the house.
"I couldn't believe it," Kelly said. "You could hear the fire crackling."
Firefighters rushed to the scene within minutes and quickly had the fire under control, said Fire Chief Barry McKay. National Grid crews were expected to work throughout the night, scanning the area for any other potential leaks.
The blast rattled nerves in this neighborhood near Route 128. The smell of gas wafted through the air hours after the blast.
"Nobody feels safe," said Lisa Matheson, a resident. "It's not very comforting knowing this house went up because of the gas. . . . Everyone is angry."
Jeff Tarr, owner of the convenience store, said he called the fire department on Dec. 26 at 5:30 a.m. after he smelled gas seeping from manhole covers.
He said gas company workers did not detect any problems, but he and other residents called over the next couple weeks, and the crews returned at least three times.
"Their response was there," Tarr said. "But did they do anything? I don't know."
At the news conference, the mayor announced a new hot line to report gas leaks: 800-231-5325.
Last month in Scituate, a man was killed in a house explosion. The cause remains unclear. The state fire marshal's office has not released any details.
Police have said "human involvement" was a factor.
Neighbors and colleagues said Sargent took great pride in his beige house with blue trim, meticulously mowing the lawn and pruning the shrubs. Potted flowers cascaded from the farmer's porch.
Sargent, a 1969 graduate of Gloucester High School, also collected antique toys, metal lunch boxes, and other memorabilia.
Earlier this month, he was among eight officers commended by the department after they safely apprehended a man who had locked himself in his apartment and threw butcher knives at two officers, according to a Gloucester Daily Times story.
"You could drive by the house and just say 'Wow,' " said Officer Michael Scola, who has worked with Sargent for six years. "He's a good guy. It really hurts to see something like this happen to him."
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com.