Explosion caused by natural gas

Tuesday, March 18, 2008 | 4:44 p.m. CDT; updated 5:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Last Friday’s explosion of a house in the East Campus neighborhood was caused by natural gas, the Columbia Fire Department said Tuesday. A retired MU professor was killed in the blast and fire that followed; his wife was critically injured.

A team of city fire and police department investigators ruled out all other causes, Columbia Fire Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said.

“That leaves us with the only available material, which is natural gas,” Sapp said.

Sapp said the source of the gas was inside the home of Merna and Carl Sneed at 308 McNab Drive. But the precise source of the gas and what ignited it remain unknown.

Carl Sneed, 87, was killed by the explosion and subsequent fire. Merna Sneed, 84, was thrown from the house and burned over 30 percent of her body.

Investigators spent the weekend waiting to interview Merna Sneed, who remains in critical condition at University Hospital’s burn unit, and Linda Sneed, a daughter of the Sneeds who lived in the house for a period of several years and was familiar with it.

Investigators interviewed Linda Sneed of Columbia on Monday.

“The interviews with the family and the neighbors and the police reports all helped the investigators come to the conclusion,” Sapp said.

Pam Heath, 52, one of the couple’s three daughters, said University Hospital doctors were planning to operate on Merna Sneed on Wednesday.

A spokesman for AmerenUE, Mike Cleary, said investigators’ findings support the initial determination of the gas company.

“Our responsibility is making sure that the gas reaches the home and the meter is working,” he said. “From our standpoint, an older house might have older equipment, but our responsibility is the main line.”

AmerenUE workers were almost immediately at the scene of Friday’s explosion and found a gas leak in a vertical conduit, called a “riser,” outside the now leveled home.

“The natural gas line came out of the ground and connected to the meter at the home that was destroyed,” Cleary said.

However, Sapp said that there is no way of knowing whether or not that pipe was the source of the gas leak. He said that there is no way to know what sparked the explosion.

He said the only person who might know those facts is Merna Sneed.

He added that he expects that there could soon be “some private investigation done by insurance companies.”

“We’re wrapping up all our reports and kinda closing it down a little bit,” Sapp said.

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