Gas Smell Reported Months Before Explosion, Resident Says

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – One of the residents of the Realty Tower isn’t surprised that a natural gas line that wasn’t in service had gas in it.

Tracey Winbush said she and other residents had smelled gas both inside and outside of the building in recent months and reported it to building management.

“I just want my home back,” said Winbush, who is moving temporarily into the Gallagher Building downtown. “I want them to take care of us.”

An explosion Tuesday afternoon at the 12-story Federal Street building killed one man and injured several others. It also displaced the building’s residents. 

The man killed, Akil Drake, was an employee of the Chase Bank branch on the building’s first floor.

At a news briefing Thursday afternoon at the Holiday Inn in Boardman, a National Transportation Safety Board member said a below-surface gas line at the site that wasn’t in service but was pressurized with natural gas had been cut. A line that isn’t in service shouldn’t have gas in it, NTSB board member Tom Chapman said.

“Preliminary information suggests that work crews were present in the basement of the building for the purpose of clearing out old utility infrastructure,” he said. “A possible third-party cut to the pressurized service line is a central focus of our investigation to determine the cause of the gas release and subsequent explosion.”

Enbridge Gas of Ohio is the surface provider for the area, and the main gas line that serviced the building runs in front of it, along East Federal Street and Market Street, Chapman said. 

When Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and Enbridge Gas workers arrived at the building Tuesday, they, accompanied by firefighters, entered the building’s basement, found the pressurized abandoned service line, shut it off, capped and depressurized it, Chapman said.

“With regard to this tragedy, we are particularly interested in issues related to gas line failure and system integrity management, third-party work in the vicinity of gas lines and emergency response,” Chapman said.

NTSB has a long-standing concern about third-party work in the vicinity of gas lines, he said.

Chapman called the damage to the building stunning and devastating. 

It’s difficult to get perspective from photos and video, but when you get up close and see how deep it goes into the basement and the size of the damaged structures, “it gets your attention,” he said.

Investigators from NTSB’s rail pipeline and hazardous materials teams arrived in Youngstown on Wednesday. Chapman arrived Thursday. The team is led by Kim West, investigator in charge, who is experienced in government and industry pipeline safety, according to Chapman.

The teams will examine operations and integrity management, survival factors, emergency response and human performance as part of the investigation.

The NTSB team is expected to be in town investigating for about a week. A preliminary report will be issued in about 30 days, with final reports not expected for 12 to 24 months, Chapman said. The NTSB’s role is to determine what happened, he said.

Kim West, pipeline investigator in charge with the Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Material Investigations at the NTSB, and Tom Chapman, NTSB board member.

“We’re not looking to determine negligence,” he said. “We’re not looking to determine fault. We’re just looking to determine what the facts are.”

State and local authorities, not the NTSB, will determine what happens with the building moving forward, Chapman said.

Chapman also extended condolences from NTSB to the explosion victims. He also commended first responders and law enforcement personnel who arrived at the explosion and Mercy Health hospital staff who treated the injured.

Chapman encouraged witnesses and those with relevant information to contact the NTSB at witness@ntsb.gov.

“Our mission is to understand not just what happened, but why it happened and to recommend changes to prevent it from happening again,” he said. 

The agency won’t, however, determine a probable cause while on scene or speculate about the cause.

The Mercy Health Foundation Mahoning Valley announced Thursday afternoon that it is partnering with Covelli Enterprises to provide lunch for the first responders who have been working at the scene of the building explosion.

“We join the community in remembering Akil Drake and praying for all affected by this tragedy, but we are also grateful to our local heroes – all of the first responders, police officers, fire and EMS personnel, and our Mercy Health caregivers who respond unselfishly and heroically when our neighbors are in need,” said Paul Homick Jr., president of Mercy Health Foundation Mahoning Valley.

Seven patients were taken to Mercy Health facilities for care following the explosion. Four have been treated and released, and three remain hospitalized.

“Our hearts go out to the Youngstown community after the devastating explosion that occurred this past week,” said Danielle Covelli, marketing director at Covelli Enterprises. “We extend our condolences to Akil Drake’s family, and our thoughts are with those who have been seriously injured. We couldn’t be more appreciative of our Youngstown first responders that stepped in to help our community members in need during this tragic event. Supporting the efforts of the Mercy Health Foundation to provide meals to first responders during this time is a small thank you for a very big reason.”

Staff members will be on site to deliver meals from Panera Bread at noon Friday. They’ll then visit the Youngstown Police Department to deliver additional food.

The American Red Cross, along with Catholic Charities, met Realty Building residents outside Covelli Centre on Thursday afternoon to help them file claims for assistance. The agencies also offered help with temporary residences.

Reniro Jackson, Charles Cook and Cook’s nephew, Randy Smith, have lived in the Realty Building for about a year. Jackson and Cook were out of town on business when the explosion happened.

Smith, though, was home with Cook’s two doberman pinschers, Bruce and Grace. Smith was able to get out with the two dogs. Jackson and Cook learned about the explosion from a relative.

William Mayberry, a resident of Realty Tower, and his German short-haired pointer, Ronald.

William Mayberry has lived in the building for about two years. He and his 3-year-old nephew and German short-haired pointer, Ronald, were walking in Wean Park when the explosion occurred.

He heard it but thought it was the sound of bulldozers in the area. Then he saw the smoke. He’s been staying with his parents in Poland since the explosion. He bought clothes at Walmart so he would have clean garments to wear.

Councilwoman Samantha Turner, 3rd Ward, was at the Covelli Centre on Thursday distributing information to building residents. She said council members, in working with fire Chief Barry Finley, have arranged for residents to go into the building Friday to retrieve some belongings. Residents must sign up for slots from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Slots are assigned for 30-minute intervals, and firefighters will accompany them.

“You may collect items you can safely carry in your arms or a suitcase,” the letter reads.

Winbush said residents have been told by building management that it may be between five and seven months before residents can return to the building. She doesn’t think they’ll ever be able to return.

“I’m just going to get what I can and bless the rest,” Winbush said.

Pictured at top: Damage is seen at Realty Tower in downtown Youngstown after Tuesday’s explosion.

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