By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Four Gainesville residents made homeless by Thursday morning’s house explosion on West Tennie Street are currently getting shelter, but could use more help.
Laurie Leahy of homeware company Thirstystone Resources, Inc. — employer of Alma and Martin Martinez, formerly of 221 W. Tennie St. — said the adults and their two sons are currently staying at her Denton County residence.
And following Thursday’s disaster, family is what they have left.
“They don’t have a home and they’ve lost every possession they own,” Leahy said Friday. “They literally have their pajamas.”
Early morning disaster
As reported Friday, the Tennie Street explosion occurred at 7 a.m. Thursday and was evidently triggered by a gas leak, said both city officials and Atmos Energy representatives. The explosion caused no injuries, due to an immediate evacuation Atmos conducted throughout Tennie Street once a major gas leak was detected in sewer vents.
Officials from both entities also added Thursday that the cause of the leak, plus the cause of the ignition, are still under investigation.
City Manager Barry Sullivan said the incident evidently began shortly after 1:30 a.m. Thursday when City of Gainesville workers responded to a water leak in the 700 block of South Weaver Street.
Three hours after they had begun management of a 12-inch water main, he said, crew members reported detecting natural gas on site and contacted Atmos Energy shortly before 5 a.m.
“The results from the test led to Atmos doing an immediate evacuation,” Sullivan said Thursday.
Atmos representatives evacuated seven houses on Tennie Street before sunrise. At 7 a.m., Sullivan said, the house at 221 W. Tennie St., which also intersects Weaver Street, exploded and the remains stood engulfed in flame.
The blast caused no damage to neighboring houses or vehicles, but both Sullivan and Atmos spokesperson Jennifer Ryan said the primary ignition of the gas is still unexplained. Police and fire department officers responded by extinguishing the house fire and barricading roads in a two-block radius. Gas, water and electric utilities were stymied in 30 homes, Ryan said, though those utilities were reactivated by late Thursday.
Sullivan and Ryan also both said they didn’t know if the gas leak already existed before early Thursday morning or was accidentally caused on site by the Gainesville city crew. Water and gas utility lines are often buried very close to one another, Sullivan said, and the detection of Thursday’s gas leak was both by smell and by the sight of bubbles rising through the water line.
How the gas line was ruptured in the first place remains unknown.
“The exact cause may take days, weeks or even months to determine,” Ryan said.
The displaced family
Following the destruction of the Martinez home, Leahy said she brought the family to stay with her since they didn’t look ready to do much else.
“The American Red Cross has three nights for them at a local motel,” she said. “But I felt they were too traumatized to all go stay in one room at the Holiday Inn, and they have no family here. But the Red Cross has been awesome, and amazing.
“We’re going to do everything we can to help them,” she added.
Leahy said Alma and Martin Martinez speak limited English and have been media-shy, and have chosen to allow her to speak for them.
She also said their three-night motel credit, though helpful, won’t get the family very far. Clothes have been donated, a “Martinez Benefit Fund” donation account is now available at First State Bank of Gainesville, and Leahy said fundraisers may be organized in the near future.
“We’re looking for a rental home for them,” Leahy said. “Right now, I’m just going to make sure they have a roof over their head and clothes to wear and food to eat. People have been amazing, but we still have to step back and figure out where they’re going to live. Their car was melted. There’s a lot to think through.”
Sullivan said proper protocol was observed by City of Gainesville crews before the early morning dig into Weaver Street. Officials were not required to contact Atmos Energy before digging, but did contact a third-party “dig test” locator company, as required.
“The appropriate procedures were followed,” he said Thursday.
In a follow-up call late Friday, Sullivan repeated that the cause of the initial gas leak is still unknown and that the issue has become only more murky since early Thursday.
The city crew did discover a gas leak in the middle of the night, he said, and followed strict protocol in reporting it. But in examining the scene during the hours that followed, Sullivan said he can’t be certain what created the original problem.
Only an investigation among state and local agencies will provide clearer answers.
“We don’t know how the leak was caused,” he said. “They were there, smelling in the dark. And when they saw there was a gas leak, they called it in. We were meeting all those requirements. But it became more ambiguous, what happened. We’re really going to have to investigate this and that’s what we’re still doing.”
Ryan said Atmos employees continued on the disaster site through Friday, assisting neighboring residents whose gas utility required reactivation. City of Gainesville crews continued repairing the water leak originally reported early Thursday morning.
Ryan also said Atmos fielded a second complaint about a possible gas leak, but technicians found nothing.
The complaint was likely not a prank call, she said.
“They did the right thing,” Ryan said. “Especially when following something like this. We follow up on any, any report to a gas leak.”
Investigations by Atmos Energy, the Railroad Commission of Texas and the City of Gainesville are anticipated to continue through the coming weeks. Ryan said local Atmos customers should call 1-866-322-8667 to report any detected gas leaks. Sullivan said any neighboring resident directly affected by Thursday’s incident can call (940) 668-7777 for assistance.
For more information about the benefit fund, call (940) 668-6793.