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Town's gas leak concern grows


SNOW HILL -- A week after a deadly propane gas explosion ripped through the serenity of this rural county seat, killing one man and injuring 17 people, residents are beginning to ask tough questions about the town's aging underground utilities.

Many in the town of 2,400 are taking notice of what they say is the telltale smell of leaking propane that has been common around town for years.

"I think everybody is just stunned, and they've had time to think about it, to be concerned," said Ruth Young, whose 87-year-old mother, Sadie Dryden, remains in a Salisbury hospital, recovering from injuries suffered in the explosion that demolished her Bay Street home.

A half-dozen badly burned volunteer firefighters also are hospitalized at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore.

"Our phone never stops ringing with people asking about my mother, but a lot of people say they're scared to death," Young said.

Worcester County Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon, whose agency was assisted by investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms and the National Transportation Safety Board, told residents at a meeting last week that the cause of the explosion that knocked firefighters, police and bystanders to the ground has not been determined.

However, McMahon said, a section of corroded underground pipe was turned over to the Maryland Public Service Commission, the agency responsible for oversight of seven carriers who supply municipal propane services in the state.

Steve Ashcraft, president of Eastern Shore Gas Co., told residents that his company, which last inspected for leaks in November, will begin inspecting the entire system again today. In addition, he said, an independent consultant will be hired to evaluate the town's system.

More than 100 residents packed the Snow Hill Middle School auditorium Thursday night for a hastily arranged meeting with town officials and representatives of the county fire marshal's office, the state Public Service Commission and Eastern Shore Gas, the Ocean City-based firm that supplies propane to that resort, as well as Snow Hill, Berlin and other nearby communities.

Many who attended wore tiny red lapel pins in honor of the injured firefighters and Ignatius Daniel Saienni, the 39-year-old gas company worker who was killed in the accident.

The explosion occurred the afternoon of Sept. 1 when a gas line, apparently dislodged by nearly a foot of rain that fell during the weekend, caused propane to fill the basement of Dryden's 1 1/2 -story house.

Veterans of the approximately 60-member community fire and rescue company, which had 13 of its members injured in the blast, say they answer 10 to 15 calls a year from residents who report possible leaks in lines that were installed 50 years ago.

Alex Dankanich, who as manager of the state commission's Pipeline Safety Program is heading its investigation, said that minor leaks are commonplace for municipal systems, regardless of the size of the community.

Inspections, in which a grading system is used to assess potential danger, are routine in most towns and cities, Dankanich said.

Al Cohen, a former Snow Hill town manager, agreed, saying that diligent inspections usually head off serious problems.

"The condition of infrastructure is an issue for any municipality in the state," Cohen said. "Snow Hill is not much different from Baltimore or most other places."

But Snow Hill residents are wary.

Many say they remember an incident about 18 months ago in which an employee of Eastern Shore Gas was overcome by fumes as he checked a leak.

"I love my gas, I've been a customer for 37 years, but I called the gas company back in June and to my knowledge, there's never been anybody out to check," said Vivian Pilchard. "The smell was so bad, the mail carrier told us about it."

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