East Campus explosion still vivid in memories

Friday, April 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Dan Kelly, son-in-law of Carl and Merna Sneed, examines a pair of old gloves found at the scene of the house explosion on McNab Drive. Kelly, from San Francisco, was sifting through the remains of the house with two other family members of the Sneed's.

COLUMBIA — The skeleton of a house sits at 308 McNab Drive.

The walls are stained with black burn marks, the window frames are rusty and twisted, and shards of glass are spread across the property.

On March 14, 2008, the house in the East Campus neighborhood exploded, killing retired MU professor Carl Sneed, 87, and severely injuring Merna Sneed, 84. Merna Sneed died a few weeks later, on April 3, from severe burns caused by the explosion.

The explosion reverberated across East Campus and could be heard blocks away.

Neighbors still recall the event vividly.

It was "devastating,” said Daryl Keller, 31, who lives at 309 McNab Drive and was in her backyard when the explosion happened. “First, there was confusion about what it was. Next, there was an adrenaline rush because we knew they were home, and next a feeling of devastation. It was heart-wrenching because you knew people’s lives were being lost.”

An investigation by the Columbia Police and Fire departments determined the explosion was caused by natural gas.

Portia Ann Brown, 66, lives at 314 McNab Drive, next to what remains of the Sneeds’ house. The explosion shattered the windows of her house.

“It really was terrible, we were neighbors for about 30 years or more,” she said. “It took a while for me to get used to the Sneeds not being around.”

The East Campus neighborhood is a very close community where everybody knows one another, Rune Sharp said. Sharp, who was traveling when the explosion happened, said people in the neighborhood were very upset.

“The Sneeds had been here forever,” she said.

After the explosion, a huge crowd of people watched the fire and the workers in silence, Brown recalled. Neighbors exchanged phone numbers to come up with a plan for getting the glass picked up that circled the Sneeds’ lot.

“As all tragedies tend to do, you get to know your neighbors better,” Keller said. “It has made our community tighter.”

But there were other emotions.

“There was fear that things weren’t safe,” said Keller, who installed a fireplace insert and bought a wood stove after the explosion. Her house still uses natural gas, but she is looking for other options.

“There could be a gas leak in my house, and in my neighbor’s house,” she said. “There was definitely fear that something like that could happen at any moment.”

The Sneeds' daughters are still recovering from the loss of their parents.

“We had trouble when the anniversary (of my father’s death) came up,” said Terry Linda Sneed, who lives in Columbia. “And we are having trouble now, with the anniversary of my mother."

She misses the guidance her father gave her and her two sisters on financial matters, and often thinks about her mother and her dedication to her work with the Friends of the Columbia Public Library.

“The ghosts of their memories are with me,” she said.

Terry Linda Sneed and her sisters, Pamela Rae Heath and Patricia Kay Sneed, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against AmerenUE, the company that provided natural gas to the house. The lawsuit alleges the deaths of the Sneeds were due to negligent acts or omissions by the company.

The suit states that natural gas leaked from an Ameren supply line, migrated below ground and through the foundation of the house into the basement of the Sneed residence, where the explosion occurred, according to court documents.

Ameren denies the allegations, arguing that it acted in compliance with its tariff approved by the Missouri Public Service Commission, and that the explosion was caused by acts or omissions by the Sneeds, according to court documents.

The investigation into how the explosion occurred continues.

“This is a serious matter requiring thoughtful investigation, and that’s what we are doing through the court process ...,” said Nicholas L. DiVita, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

“The litigation is ongoing — (the case) is in the discovery process right now,” so no trial date has been set or requested, DiVita said.

The Missouri Public Service Commission did not file a report on the explosion, according to Bob Leonberger, a supervisor with the commission.

“There were no leaks on Ameren facilities that we believe would have caused the explosion. There was no evidence of any failure of AmerenUE equipment,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That points to something inside the house, but we don’t know what.”

After the explosion, Ameren did not assist with the cleaning of McNab Drive, which was littered with glass. At least one neighbor had hard feelings about that.

“I definitely felt that Ameren was not very amicable in this situation with us,” Keller said.

The anniversaries of her parents' deaths are painful times for Pamela Rae Heath.

“Everything comes up again,” she said.

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