Blast Caused by Broken Gas Line Pulled Apart by Grader Working Near Building—Hot Stove Causes Fire

SEVEN persons were killed by a gas explosion which leveled the Richey and Gilbert Company building in Toppenish, Wash., when they were buried under a mass of debris after the blast. Fourteen persons were injured in the explosion, but managed to escape or were rescued by members of the Toppenish and Zillah fire departments, and by spectators who volunteered.

The explosion occurred about 11:20 a.m. Just ten minutes before, Leo Henle, Chief of the Toppenish Fire Department was in the building checking on some electrical installations that were being put in at the time. After leaving the building, he had only gone two blocks when the explosion occurred. The Toppenish Department which responded to the first alarm ran two 2 1/2inch lines from a hydrant directly in front of the building and two more lines from a hydrant a block away. A bumper was used on these latter two lines. Later, the Zillah, Wash., Fire Department was called bringing a pumper, Chief C. L. Barthlow, and four men. This truck layed two more lines from a hydrant two blocks away.

Views of the Fire and Wreckage Resulting from the Gas Blast in Toppenish, Wash. Upper, clouds of smoke from the fire burning underneath the debris.picture shows the extent to which the building was damaged by the blast.

Several times, while the men were working in the basement, where the main fire was located, the smoke rolled back so thickly that a fog nozzle was put into use to drive the smoke away. This nozzle was used from one of the lines off the hydrant in front of the building. Firemen had a difficult job getting through the wreckage to the seat of the fire, down under all the debris next to the basement floor.

An investigation revealed that the explosion was caused by a broken gas line which had apparently been pulled loose by a Yakima County grader working in the alley beside the building. The scarifier blades were believed to have struck the pipe and pulled it just enough to break it inside the wall of the building. The investigation indicated that the pipe was broken about ten to fifteen minutes before the explosion occurred. Somehow this accumulated gas was ignited, causing the explosion.

Chief Leo Henle stated that the fire following the explosion was probably due entirely to a coal burning stove which had a hot fire going at the time of the explosion. When he was in the building he stood by this stove, so naturally when the department arrived the Chief was sure of a resultant fire. There was no sign of a fire when the department first arrived, but it was not very long before smoke started billowing out from underneath the wreckage. The fire quickly started to spread, being fed by a large supply of tires, paints, and several barrels and cans of oil and tar paper.

Members of the department worked at the scene of the blast combing the wreckage for bodies of victims. The department and Chief Henle were praised for the manner in which the men conducted the fire fighting and rescue activities.

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