Firefighters say uncapped gas pipe led to explosion

Fire investigators Friday blamed a fatal house explosion in north Charlotte on an improperly removed heater that left a gas pipe uncapped.

When an uncertified handyman turned the gas back on last week to ignite a water heater, fire officials said gas seeped from the uncapped pipe for almost two hours before the house blew up.

Four-month-old Synora Coleman was killed in the explosion June 19. Firefighters found her body in the rubble a few minutes after they arrived. Her mother, Courtney Chambers was taken to Carolinas Medical Center and released earlier this week. Synora's father, Sylmyles Coleman, had burns on a third of his body and is still at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, which has a burn unit.

At a Friday news conference, fire investigators said they'd present their findings to the Mecklenburg District Attorney's Office to determine whether charges would be filed. A separate investigation also found that an earlier call about a natural gas odor on Wellingford Street, 90 minutes before last week's incident, was unrelated to the explosion.

The property at 410 Wellingford St. is owned by Edward Clay, who told WCNC-TV, the Observer's news partner, that he “has no knowledge of what was done or how it was done.”

It's not illegal for an uncertified person to turn a gas line on or off, but Piedmont Natural Gas recommends that a professional do the job. The company had no service calls on Wellingford Street before the explosion last week.

“There were two major problems,” said Chief Fire Investigator David Lowery. “There was never a cap placed on this section of piping. And the handyman turning on the gas was uncertified. He simply assumed that it was a dead, inactive line.”

According to firefighters, when the house became vacant in March, the landlord ordered renovations – new floors, drywall and the removal of an outdated heater. A handyman removed the gas heater from the hallway, but firefighters said he didn't cap the pipe to prevent gas from flowing out of it in the future. The gas was turned off at the time.

Synora's family moved into the house in June. On June 19, Chambers talked with the landlord about a leaky toilet at the one-story house. She also told the landlord she had put a deposit down for gas, but the family didn't have hot water.

Around 6 p.m., a second handyman came to the house. He turned the gas on, lit the water heater's pilot light and fixed the toilet. He then checked to make sure warm water was flowing to the bathroom sink. In all, the handyman was in the house for less than half an hour.

Lowery said that the handyman, whom authorities declined to identify, never knew about the removal of the old heater or the uncapped pipe.

With the line open, the gas flowed freely, filling up the space in the walls and crawl spaces for an hour and 42 minutes, firefighters said.

At 7:42 p.m., the house exploded, the gas likely ignited by the water heater. The neighborhood was blanketed in wood, bricks and insulation. Pieces of the roof landed on other homes and the front door ended up across the street, more than 100 feet away.

When firefighters arrived minutes later, they found the two injured parents, both with serious burns.

The baby, they said, was still in the rubble.