Explosion investigators still searching for answers

Sunday, March 16, 2008 | 8:34 p.m. CDT; updated 7:42 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Carl and Merna Sneed.

COLUMBIA — Investigators searching for the cause of an explosion Friday in the East Campus neighborhood were hoping that interviews with the woman who lived there and a daughter would help yield a definitive answer, Columbia Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Sapp said Sunday afternoon.

Investigators were waiting to speak to Merna Sneed, 84, the sole survivor of the blast at 308 McNab Drive, Sapp said.

Merna’s husband, Carl Sneed, 87, died during the blast and ensuing fire.

Firefighters found a natural gas pipe with a small leak immediately after the explosion, AmerenUE spokesman Mike Cleary said. However, he said the hole in the pipe could have been caused by the blast. A neighbor said she smelled natural gas shortly before the explosion. Cleary said that there are other substances that mimic the sulfur smell of the chemical AmerenUE puts in the gas to make it detectable.

Investigators were not ready Sunday to conclude that a natural gas leak caused the explosion.

“What we indicated was that (natural gas) was one of the possible main causes,” Sapp said. “But we want to talk to Merna Sneed.”

Sneed remained in critical condition in University Hospital’s burn unit Sunday afternoon. She suffered burns to about 30 percent of her body. One of her daughters, Penny Sneed, 52, said on Saturday that physicians had given her a 25 percent chance of survival.

Investigators were also interested in talking to the Sneeds’ other daughter, Linda Sneed, of Columbia.

“She’s very familiar with the house,” Sapp said. “She lived there for several years while (Merna and Carl Sneed) were traveling abroad.”

Sapp said the interviews will help investigators determine where household appliances were situated before the blast, which blew them far from the house. For example, the washer and dryer were found in the backyard, Sapp said.

Daryl Keller, who lives in the house across the street from the leveled two-story home, said a homemade jack that Carl Sneed made to halt the settling of his garage acted as a “torpedo” and damaged the siding of her McNab Drive home.

Sapp said that explosions like that at McNab Drive are rare and that Columbia residents have nothing to fear. He said the last explosion in Columbia comparable to Friday morning’s blast occurred in the 1970s.

According to a Federal Emergency Management Agency training manual, gas explosions occur within structures where gas “pressures can build up within confined spaces.”

“(But) if you smell natural gas in a building, leave and call 911,” Sapp said.

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