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Perryville blast investigation centers on open propane valve

THE BALTIMORE SUN

State fire investigators probing last Saturday's explosion at a closed Perryville sub shop want to know why the valve was open on a propane gas tank behind the eatery and why the empty restaurant's propane tanks were filled a day before the blast.

Investigators already have conducted more than 30 interviews, but the probe is expected to last another week or two, said Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas.

The propane gas explosion and fire killed one woman, caused an estimated $10 million in damage and left about 100 people homeless in the Susquehanna River town of 2,450.

Apparently, it is being treated as an accident.

The building that housed the destroyed Broad Street Restaurant was the subject of an ownership dispute and court battle earlier this year. When the dispute was resolved, the sub shop's last tenant cleared out quickly to avoid a large rent increase.

But Mr. Thomas said "up through this point we have found nothing that would indicate criminal activity or design" behind the explosion.

Nor would the deputy chief blame human error in the blast. "I can't speculate and say negligence is what's being looked at. It would be premature to say that," he said.

The last people known to have entered the eatery at 359 Broad Street were employees of Wayne Wright, a Rising Sun painting contractor who had rented the shop. They were there July 2, four days before the explosion.

Mr. Wright said that he rented the eatery in April and closed up shop June 30, the Sunday before the blast, because a new landlord wanted to double his rent.

Charles Hamm, Mr. Wright's son-in-law, said that he turned off the two propane tanks behind the shop July 1, and that no one smelled gas the following day when they last visited the building to sell a pizza oven to a Perryville tavern owner.

"The valves were off. I know that for a fact," Mr. Hamm said.

Although the restaurant was closed, Conowingo Gas Co. made a propane delivery July 5, the day before the explosion, Mr. Thomas said.

Mr. Wright said he thought Conowingo only delivered propane when it was ordered.

"This place is vacant. You don't leave gas in a vacant building. There was an 'out of business sign,' " Mr. Wright said.

But Charles Burnett, a work-release inmate at the Cecil County jail who managed the eatery for Mr. Wright, a cousin, said Conowingo had a contract to deliver propane at regular intervals. He said he didn't notify the company to stop deliveries.

"They'd come, fill it up, come in the back door, and I'd give them a check or cash," Mr. Burnett said.

A delivery could have been made "if the driver didn't get the word not to show up," he said.

Pam Lawson, manager of Conowingo Gas, referred all questions to the insurance agent, Bay Area Insurance Agency of Severna )) Park, which did not return phone calls.

If propane was delivered but the tanks' valves were closed, the gas still would not have escaped.

But Mr. Thomas said an open valve on one of two 100-gallon propane tanks behind the shop "caused a flow of gas out of the tank into the line." He said investigators were trying to trace whether a damaged or uncapped line had caused gas to leak into the sub shop -- finally exploding, when ignited by an unknown source.

Mr. Burnett said that the eatery's grill, deep fryer and pizza oven ran on propane. He said that he was not present July 2 when the pizza oven was removed and couldn't say whether the gas line was capped off.

But John T. Barrow III, the tavern owner who bought the oven, said the gas line "had a stop valve on it, and I know it was disconnected properly. There was no gas smell, no gas leaking."

Wayne Wright said he was on a fishing holiday in Virginia when he saw the news of the Perryville explosion and fire on Cable News Network. "I couldn't believe it. I was dumbfounded," he said.

Mr. Wright said he had rented the sub shop for $500 a month from Roland Rapposelli.

But when Chandrakant Patel, a Perryville liquor store owner, regained control of the building from the Rapposelli family in a court fight and wanted to raise the rent to $1,050, Mr. Wright balked. He said he cleared out of the building without telling Mr. ++ Patel.

Mr. Patel's New Deli & Grocery, Inc. bought the building in 1985 for $88,000 from Mr. Rapposelli's wife Mildred, according to land records. Mrs. Rapposelli took back a five-year, no-interest $80,000 mortgage with a final balloon payment, the records show.

When the $53,333 payment came due last fall, Mr. Patel said he asked for more time to arrange financing. In December, Mrs. Rapposelli foreclosed on the mortgage.

The property was sold at auction in January to James H. Rapposelli, Mildred Rapposelli's son and agent, for $20,000, the same amount that she paid for it in 1981, court records show. James Rapposelli is a Perryville town commissioner.

Mr. Patel contested the sale in March in Cecil County Circuit Court on grounds that he wasn't made aware of the foreclosure and auction. The case was settled last month when Mr. Patel paid off the mortgage and regained control of the property.

James Rapposelli said that there were no hard feelings over the settlement and discounted the possibility of any foul play causing the explosion.

Mr. Patel, who described himself as an immigrant businessman "busting my chops trying to make a go," said he last visited the building July 1 after someone told him Mr. Wright had closed the sub shop. He said the employees cleaning the shop wouldn't let him in.

Mr. Patel said that the building, which had a market value of $99,960, according to state assessment records, was insured for only $60,000, the size of the loan he took out to pay off the Rapposelli mortgage.

"I was not trying to make a buck out of it, not a single cent. I was just trying to hold onto the property," Mr. Patel said. "I had nothing to gain by destroying it."

"The lives of people are worth much more than any money in the world," he said.

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