Two years later, liability in East Campus house explosion undetermined

Sunday, March 14, 2010 | 4:05 p.m. CDT; updated 6:12 p.m. CDT, Sunday, March 14, 2010
The house foundation where a gas explosion killed the home's two residents two years ago remains locked behind a chain-link fence on McNab Drive on March 12, 2010. The house has remained in this condition since the explosion because of a lawsuit filed by the deceased's daughters.

COLUMBIA — Two years ago, the home of Carl and Merna Sneed exploded and burned to the ground in the East Campus neighborhood. The sheer force of the natural gas explosion and intensity of the blaze that followed have left investigators with a forensic challenge.

The Sneeds' daughters, Patricia Kay Sneed, Pamela Rae Heath and Terry Linda Sneed, sued AmerenUE on June 20, 2008, for wrongful death and damages. Since then, investigators for the Kansas City law firm the daughters hired have been sifting through what remains of their parents' house.

“The process is taking so long primarily because there was so much damage done by the explosion,” their attorney, Neil Johnson, said. “So much evidentiary material was damaged and impacted by the explosion.”

On the morning of March 14, 2008, natural gas accumulated in the basement of the Sneed residence at 308 McNab Drive, according to a lawsuit filed against AmerenUE. The gas ignited and the house exploded, killing Carl Sneed, 87, instantly and hurling Merna Sneed, 84, from the home.

She was taken to University Hospital with extensive burns and a broken pelvis. One of her legs was partially amputated before she died on April 3, 2008.

The lawsuit accuses AmerenUE of failing to monitor, investigate, test and inspect the riser supplying natural gas to the Sneed residence.

“It is certainly alleged that Ameren was being negligent, but we’re still investigating,” Johnson said.

In response to the lawsuit, AmerenUE said it supplied natural gas to the Sneed home, but denied it was responsible for leakage that caused the explosion. AmerenUE said the accumulation of natural gas was "caused by leakage, escape or loss of gas on the customer's side of the point of delivery."

Meanwhile, what remains of the Sneed residence has been encircled with a fence and  marked with a sign that says "No Trespassing" to leave undisturbed any evidence that may be vital to the case.

“It has been undisputed from the start that it was a natural gas explosion, and both sides are working hard to figure out where the gas came from,” Johnson said.

Johnson alluded to some concerns from neighboring residents about the property remaining in its current state.

“It has been substantially cleaned up, but it continues to be an issue for the neighborhood,” Johnson said.

Most neighbors were unwilling to comment about the remains of the Sneed residence but said they understood the investigation needed to be completed.

Next-door neighbor Portia Brown said she was concerned that she smelled gas at her own property after the explosion occurred. An AmerenUE employee came out to inspect her home, installed a new meter and assured neighboring residents that the explosion was caused by “insignificant leaks,” she said.

“It doesn’t sound right because there was a huge explosion,” Brown said.

Her fears haven't been completely dispelled.

“I’m a little worried about a gas leak again because no one said if it was fixed or not,” she said.

Before the explosion, there had been leaks reported in some of the neighboring houses, but AmerenUE told residents that the leakage had been dealt with, Johnson, the attorney, said.

There was no record of the Sneeds filing any complaints with AmerenUE before their house exploded, Johnson said. The last trip AmerenEU made to the Sneed residence was "quite a few years" before the explosion.

No court dates have been scheduled in connection with the lawsuit.

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