South Philadelphia

Nearly Century-Old Gas Main Cracked, Providing Fuel for Deadly South Philly Explosion

The water main dates 1859. The gas main dates to 1928. Aging infrastructure under a South Philly street is seen as cause for gas explosion that killed two last month

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A nearly century-old gas line cracked and caused a gas leak and subsequent explosion in December that left two people dead and a South Philadelphia neighborhood scared of living in their homes.

The 6-inch cast iron gas pipe under the street in front of 1435 South Eighth Street likely cracked within minutes of the eventual blast and fire that level at least four houses in the Italian Market neighborhood Dec. 19, an official with Philadelphia Gas Works said Thursday.

Two people, including Brian Diu, 29, died in the huge fire that followed. An attorney for Diu's family attended a press conference held by city officials and said "every (Philadelphia) homeowner is at risk of an explosion" because of the very old infrastructure under city streets.

Residents of the 1400 block of South Eighth Street, just south of Reed Street, also showed up for the press conference at City Hall and demanded more assurances that they were safe in their homes.

Not only is the block where the fire occurred still shut down by construction vehicles doing maintenance on sub-street pipes, but at least seven water main breaks have shut off water to residents in the area since the fire, according to a Philadelphia Water Department official.

"Every morning we wake up and it's like, 'Is that gas we smell?'" Oh, our water’s off now," resident and block captain Domenica Federico said at the City Hall gathering. "Until this is settled, you better not open that street up."

Domenica Federico, the block captain for the 1400 block of South Eighth Street, demanded city officials assure residents that all pipes and infrastructure be completely fixed before reopening the street.

City officials, including Fire Commissioner Adam Theil, Managing Director Brian Abernathy and the heads of the Streets, Water and Gas deparrtments did little to assuage the concerns of Federico and a handful of other South Philadelphia residents who showed up.

"Unfortunately, people had to die and it’s not just my street, it’s every street," Federico said.

One resident asked Abernathy, who is Mayor Jim Kenney's top official, "Would you let your family stay on that block?"

Abernathy responded, "Yes, actually, I would."

The explosion happened before noon Dec. 19. Firefighters raced to save nearby homes from the destruction as flames raged on South Eighth Street, three blocks from the iconic Pat's and Geno's steak shops.

The destruction was immediate and created smoke plumes that could be seen for miles in wind gusts that reached 20 miles an hour. Thiel initially said the fire was "gas-fed."

A 6-inch gas main cracked, city officials confirmed Thursday, providing fuel for the explosion and resulting fire. The gas line was installed in 1928.

Fire officials told NBC10 that they had received numerous calls reporting an explosion prior to the blaze.

Some 60 people were evacuated from the block as the danger of more collapses persisted in the hours after the initial explosion and a sinkhole soon formed under the street.

The catastrophe and its deadly end marked the end to a particularly deadly year in Philadelphia for fires.

At least 34 people died in city fires in 2019, the highest death toll since 2014.

"I don't know that this is a trend," Thiel said in an interview in November at the graduation of the 196th class of new firefighters. "We certainly hope it's not a trend."

The quick-moving fire on South Eighth Street near Reed Street caused the roof of at least one home to collapse as flames raced through adjoining structures and sent thick, black smoke billowing into the air. Thiel confirmed witness reports that at least one woman was trapped in the debris as firefighters attempted to rescue her.

“They went into a fully-collapsed building that was on fire to try to rescue somebody," Thiel said.

More than 100 people, including firefighters, medics and police officers responded to the blaze, the commissioner said.

Electricity and gas were being shut off on the surrounding area as first responders continued to fight the flames and look for people, a task made more difficult by the fact that Philadelphia Gas Works employees had to jackhammer into the ground to reach the valve that would allow them to turn off the gas, Thiel said.

Winds were blowing about 12 miles an hour, with gusts up to 20 miles per hour, at the time the fire began. A huge plume of black, then gray and white, smoke streamed from the homes as firefighters hit the blaze with water.

Steve Sosna/NBC10
Smoke could be seen for miles as it streamed east in the strong winds, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.

The smoke was visible for miles as it flowed east across South Philadelphia in the strong winds.

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