NTSB: Workers Had No Reason to Believe Gas Was in Pipe at Realty Tower

BOARDMAN, Ohio – The crew working in the basement of the Realty Tower at the time of the natural gas leak that led to an explosion had no reason to believe gas was in the pipe, a National Transportation Safety Board member said.

Tom Chapman delivered a briefing to media members Friday night at the Holiday Inn. NTSB is investigating Tuesday’s explosion at the Realty Tower in downtown Youngstown that killed one man who worked at the Chase Bank on the first floor, injured several others and displaced the residents of the building’s 23 apartments.

GreenHeart was contracted by the city of Youngstown to relocate utility lines, including gas lines, from the basement and vault of the building.

“The crew was unaware that one of the pipes in the vault was pressurized at the time,” Chapman said. “Nor did the work crew have reason to believe that gas was present in the pipe.”

It was an abandoned service line that was coming off of the main line, which ran parallel to the street. Why the abandoned line was pressurized is part of the NTSB investigation.

Chapman said NTSB investigators interviewed workers who were in the basement and vault at the time of the incident. The crew included a supervisor and five crew members. Four workers were on-site when the incident occurred.

There was no gas smell during the day while the crew worked in the basement, Chapman said.

“This indicates that there was no ongoing leak throughout the day,” he said.

During what Chapman called the “accident sequence,” the crew made two initial cuts into piping along the basement wall.

“When a third cut was made, the crew immediately realized there was a problem and that gas had been released,” he said.

They evacuated the basement, alerted bank employees and pulled the fire alarm. At least one of the workers called 911.

“The workers were instrumental in alerting the residents in the upstairs apartments, and they assisted in helping to evacuate the residents,” Chapman said.

They were actively involved in evacuating residents, he said.

Damage to the Realty Tower in downtown Youngstown is seen Friday.

Based on information collected, the explosion occurred about six minutes after the line was cut. The NTSB also obtained security video from inside Chase Bank. The footage was stored in a cloud-based system, so investigators didn’t have to go into the building to get it.

“Regarding the building, there are very serious concerns about the integrity and the safety of the structure,” Chapman explained. “Consequently, access is not currently possible by us or by anyone until appropriate determinations are made regarding its safety.”

The whole building’s structural integrity is in question, he said.

A determination of its safety is outside of NTSB’s purview and in the hands of city, county and state authorities, he said. It will likely involve a qualified building engineer.

He cautioned that all information is preliminary and subject to change. A preliminary report is expected in about 30 days, while a final report could take one to two years.

The city paid GreenHeart about $140,000 for utility relocation. 

Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown issued a news release Friday afternoon saying the city contracted with GreenHeart to perform private utility relocation in the Realty Tower basement and prepare it for infill as part of the SMART2 project.

“As per normal practice, the contractors commenced work on their own schedule, means and methods,” the news release said. “At this time there is no evidence to suggest the gas line mentioned in the May 30 NTSB briefing was necessary to fulfill this scope.”

Community Support

While Realty Tower residents await word of when – or if – they can return to their homes, community members are stepping up to help.

Earlier Friday, Aspasia Lyras-Bernacki of Penguin City Brewing Co. and Derrick McDowell of The Youngstown Flea & We Are A Generation hosted a lunch at the brewery for residents affected by the explosion, as well as law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs and health care workers.

“I think we wanted to use what we have to help who we can,” McDowell said.

Both he and Lyras-Bernacki posted on Facebook earlier this week, inviting Realty Towers residents to stop at their respective buildings. McDowell offered air mattresses for those displaced, and both offered places for residents’ dogs to stretch out or have packages delivered.

“Both of us are downtown stakeholders,” McDowell said. “We have buildings that have plenty of space.”

People took them up on the offer.

“We’ve had people come and hang out …,” Lyras-Bernacki said. “I heard people just walked out without anything, just their keys. They had no Wi-Fi or anything like that. Just to sit in a place where you could use the Wi-Fi so you could catch up on work or getting in touch with your loved ones or whatever.”

That led to what they dubbed Feed the City. 

They set up a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise $5,000 to cover the cost of food and paper products. More than $6,000 was donated through that platform, but organizations and businesses donated additional funding, bumping the total raised to $15,000 in less than 24 hours.

The funds that exceed the cost of the lunch will be given to Realty residents, possibly in gift cards, to help them secure what they need.

Donations came from the Wean Foundation, Premier Bank and the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley. Restaurants including Avalon Downtown Pizzeria, BJs, Youngstown Barbecue and the Mocha House donated food. Volunteers also showed up to help as well.

“I think the spirit of humanity and the spirit of our city – there are people who just want to know how they can help,” McDowell said.

Also Friday, the Mercy Health Foundation Mahoning Valley, in partnership with Covelli Enterprises, provided lunch for the first responders who worked at the scene of the building explosion.

Erin Driscoll and Jordan Raines are two Realty residents who took advantage of the lunch offered at Penguin City. Each was at work when the explosion happened.

“I feel very fortunate. I’ve had a place to stay. … I’m on campus. I had my car with me. I had just come from out of town, so I had an overnight bag packed,” Driscoll said. “I’m so grateful that I had the essentials that I needed.”

Friday marked the first day she connected with other residents of the building.

“That’s been really important, really powerful to be able to see people and see how everyone is doing,” Driscoll said.

She knows Lyras-Bernacki and McDowell, working with them to plan the annual Federal Frenzy.

“They just are so deeply invested in the community, and I just really appreciate that they so quickly were able to put this together,” Driscoll said.

Erin Driscoll and Jordan Raines, residents of the Realty Tower in downtown Youngstown, took advantage of the lunch provided Friday at Penguin City Brewing.

Raines moved into Realty Tower about two years ago. A co-worker said there had been an explosion, and he ran out to see what happened. Then he smelled the gas and saw the damaged building.

He has stayed with a co-worker and is looking for a short-term rental.

“There’s just a lot of questions, and you don’t want to do too much or too little until you know more information,” Raines said. “The information is slow rolling, and it’s changing a little bit too.”

He thinks about the man who died, Akil Drake, 27, who was only a year younger than Raines, as well as others who were injured. That makes him consider how precious life is – it could have been him who was killed.

“Everyone’s been so great with the outpouring of support, but I have to figure things out too,” Raines said.

Driscoll described the post-explosion experience as surreal. 

“I’ve lived in Realty Tower for 14 years now,” she said. “I’m the only one who’s lived in my unit. Of my 22 years in Youngstown, 14 of them have been right there in Realty Tower.”

A native of New York, Driscoll moved to the Mahoning Valley to take a job at Youngstown State University. 

“My decision of wanting to move into Youngstown was so much of wanting to support the revitalization of the city by literally making it my home,” she said.

Pictured at top: NTSB board member Tom Chapman, right, and Kim West, investigator in charge.

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