ELIZABETH, N.J. (AP) — Tenants at a house that exploded, killing one person and injuring several others, noticed an “overwhelming” gas smell the day before but didn’t call any emergency agencies, though it remains unclear whether that was because they thought the owner knew about it.
More details about the Wednesday morning incident also emerged, including that the ground floor of the building was being used as an illegal apartment with its gas and electricity supply apparently off the books, Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage said.
The owner, listed in property records as Abel Brito, denied knowing about the gas smell, Bollwage said, adding that investigators haven’t found any records indicating calls were made to the city or Elizabethtown Gas, which provided gas to the house.
The explosion killed 24-year-old Femi Brown and sent several others to the hospital. Two people have since been released but two others, including an 11-year-old boy, remained in critical condition Friday.
A spokesman for Elizabethtown Gas, which provides gas to the building, said in an email that a company technician went to the house on the morning of Nov. 10 to turn on gas service in the first-floor apartment but found it was already on.
The technician checked that the company’s equipment was operating safely and found no evidence of a leak, the spokesman said. The technician also was not aware of the apartment on the ground floor. The company didn’t receive any calls about a gas odor, he said.
Investigators haven’t yet determined the exact location of the breach in the gas lines, but Bollwage said they were focusing on a first-floor line that may have been capped incorrectly when a gas dryer was removed several weeks ago. Discrepancies abound in the accounts by tenants and owner, he added.
The deceased’s father told investigators he was at the house Monday night and smelled gas but assumed tenants had reported it. Some tenants told investigators Brito told them his son smelled gas Monday but didn’t go inside the apartment to check and that the smell then dissipated.
Bollwage said one tenant reported to investigators that the gas smell was “overwhelming” Tuesday night. The tenant said Brito was notified and that Brito said he had been at the property in the afternoon to collect rent but wasn’t there in the evening, the mayor said.
“The bottom line is nobody called any emergency numbers on Monday or Tuesday [Nov. 9 or Nov. 10] to report gas,” Bollwage said.
Heavy construction equipment slowly knocked down sections of the house and cleared rubble Friday morning. The blast, which happened a block from busy Routes 1 and 9 about a mile south of Newark Liberty International Airport, affected 16 other buildings and knocked the houses on either side off their foundations, requiring them to be demolished, Bollwage said.
“First and foremost, our thoughts are with the families affected by this incident,” gas company spokesman Duane Bourne said in the email. “This is a complex investigation with multiple agencies involved. We have been working side-by-side with the city’s investigators and have remained in daily contact with the Elizabeth mayor’s office.”
Bollwage said investigators discovered there were three stoves in the house, which has three levels — a ground floor, first floor and second floor. Investigators said Wednesday the blast occurred on the top floor.