PART 1: Fatal explosion reveals underground danger

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by TERRI GRUCA / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY and producer SANDRA BARRY

Bio | Email | Follow: @TerriG_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on June 28, 2012 at 6:42 PM

Updated Friday, Jun 29 at 8:39 AM

Everywhere you look on Payne Avenue in North Austin, there are stark reminders of shattered dreams and a life lost too soon. It's often said that time heals all wounds, but not in this neighborhood.

"It's something that shouldn't have happened," said neighbor Jack Graves.

January 9, 2012 provided a wake-up call no one on Payne Avenue can forget, especially not Jack Graves.

"We'd just gone out the front door and taken about one pedal and just, you know, I heard this really loud sound. The sound didn't really get my attention as much as the roof flying off in front of me," he said.

Grave’s next door neighbor's home exploded in a ball of fire.

"I ran back in and got my wife, and one of my grandkids was here; she was home from school sick. And I got them out of the house, and I managed to get the dogs out," said Graves.

Renald Ferrovecchio, 43, wasn't as fortunate. The single father was alone inside. He died in the explosion.

"Immediately I knew what had happened," recalled Graves.

Ferrovecchio first called Texas Gas Service November 25, 2011 to report the smell of gas.

"The gas company came out on Friday and poked around," said Graves.

Texas Gas Service could not find a leak and promised to return to investigate further.

Kristi Copeland was remodeling Ferrovecchio's home at the time.

“In my mind, in everyone’s minds, and I’m sure in Renald’s mind, it was, ‘Oh well, the gas company, they’re experts. They know whether it’s safe or not. If they’ve come out, and they’ve investigated, and they didn’t evacuate the neighborhood, they didn’t turn off the gas to the house, it must be safe to be here.’” Copeland said. “Apparently not!”

About a month later, Copeland said Texas Gas returned.

“That was the 29th of December,” said Copeland.

Copeland said workers dug a hole in the front yard that day, but still couldn't find a leak. She said they left the hole open and promised to come back yet again.

“That whole next week, including weekends, I was there every single day. Nobody showed up from the gas company,” she said.”

Eleven days after that visit, Ferrovecchio's home exploded.

When Copeland arrived for one final walk-through, firefighters were blocking the street.

"That's when they explained to me that the house had blown up, and there was someone inside, and did I know who that was,” said Copeland. “That's when it was just all slow motion, unreal."

Texas Gas Service declined KVUE's requests for an interview because of a pending wrongful death lawsuit in this case.

However, in February the company did issue a report on the Payne Avenue explosion, finding that the cause was not the initial leak Ferrovecchio first reported in November, but a separate "break in the 4-inch 1950’s cast iron gas main" that Texas Gas said happened shortly before the explosion.

The report goes on to say the cause of the break was “shifting soil due to severe drought conditions followed by rainfall."

Don Deaver  worked for Exxon for 33 years investigating the company's pipeline failures. He now testifies as an expert witness in gas explosion cases across the country.

"There is a real history with cast iron pipe problems, of people doing work in other areas, and when they do that, they sometimes disturb the soil.They put additional loadings on it because of the weight of equipment, and they throw the dirt in. It actually adds forces or stress to the cast iron pipe that could then cause it to fail later on," said Deaver.

Deaver said because cast iron is a brittle material, it's especially dangerous in areas prone to drought. 

“So that really causes a new big problem with San Antonio, to Austin, all the way to Dallas,” said Deaver.

It's actually a nationwide concern.

In March 2012 the U.S. Department of Transportation re-issued a nationwide alert to all gas companies to accelerate repair or replacement of all high risk pipelines -- a warning originally issued back in 1991, 21 years before Ferrovecchio's home exploded.

“I think about Renald a lot,” said Jack Graves.

For Graves it's difficult enough to lose a neighbor, but his friend left behind a nine-year-old son.

"It's every day. You walk out here, it's like," said Graves.

Texas Gas Service said it re-inspected the remaining 32 miles of cast iron pipes in its Austin area system and that they are safe.

"So here we are every day,” said neighbor Richard May. “That house right there, the same shifting land, every day."

Leaving neighbors with one burning question.

“What is going to be done to ensure the safety of my little girl and my family?” questioned May.

We're still waiting for the state investigation into the home explosion. We'll let you know when we hear from the Texas Railroad Commission.

So where is this cast iron located? And what is being done about it? See that part of our investigation here.

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