Ballantyne home explosion likely caused by gas leak inside the house, officials say

The explosion that destroyed a Ballantyne home Tuesday, killing one woman, was most likely caused by a natural gas leak inside the house, Charlotte Fire Department Fire Marshal Jon Leonard announced Wednesday afternoon.

The incident caused about $5 million in damages to the house and surrounding area, Charlotte Fire Department Battalion Chief Matt Westover said. He said investigators are still trying to figure out what exactly went wrong inside the house and caused the explosion.

Police have identified the woman who was killed as 58-year-old Rania Karam, according to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police report. She owned the home on James Jack Lane, county records show.

Her husband, Dr. Jebran Karam, 59, was also in the house at the time of the explosion and survived, police and fire officials said. He was airlifted to an area hospital, Charlotte Fire Department officials said Tuesday.

He had serious injuries but was conscious when rescuers arrived, fire officials said, and had called 911 from inside the rubble. It took about three hours for rescuers to reach him. There has been no update Wednesday on his condition.

Jebran Karam was in a stairwell near the rear of the house, Westover said. As firefighters worked to find him, Jebran Karam was able to tell them on the phone that he could hear them. That let rescuers know they were getting close, Westover said.

Jebran Karam also gave firefighters information to help them find his wife, Westover said.

Rania Karam was located in the home around 9 p.m., seven hours after the explosion, fire officials said. She was found about 50 or 60 feet from where her husband had been, fire officials said.

Jebran Karam works as a cardiologist at Raleigh General Hospital in West Virginia, the hospital confirmed.

“We were deeply saddened to hear about this incident,” the hospital staff wrote in a statement to the Observer. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Karam family during this difficult time. Dr. Jebran Karam is a tremendous cardiologist, physician and advocate for his patients. We wish him a full and fast recovery.”

According to the hospital website, his medical school was Aleppo University, which is in Syria.

Two people, possibly relatives of the home owners, talk with an ATF investigator amidst the debris after a Tuesday explosion of a home in Ballantyne. Investigators from ATF, CFD and CMPD dug through the rubble of a home Ballantyne Wednesday, July 3, 2019. An explosion destroyed the south Charlotte house Tuesday afternoon, authorities said, and left one person dead and another with life-threatening injuries. The house in the 11000 block of James Jack Lane was last sold for $1.27 million in 2 015, county records show. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Neighbor Alice Moran, 59, told the Observer that she spoke to Rania Karam’s mother and sister Tuesday. The Karams had just gotten home from a trip to Chicago when the explosion happened, the women told Moran.

Gas leak was inside

Piedmont Natural Gas serves the area, but fire officials said the suspected leak was inside the house.

Natural gas companies such as Piedmont, like other utilities, are responsible only for the service line that connects to the meter outside a home, said Sam Watson, general counsel of the N.C. Utilities Commission.

“It is the utility’s job to supply gas to the meter,” he said. “Anything behind the meter is the homeowner’s responsibility.”

In a statement Wednesday morning, Piedmont Natural Gas reported that gas lines in the area are operating safely, and no leaks were found Tuesday.

“Yesterday, our technicians tested and checked the Piedmont natural gas lines in the area, and no natural gas leaks on our lines were detected,” the statement said, adding that the gas company is cooperating in the investigation.

Fire department officials did not say exactly what interior issue caused the explosion, but Westover said people should keep their natural gas appliances in good repair. If they smell gas, they should report it, he added.

Mark McDonald, whose Boston firm, NatGas Consulting, investigates gas explosions on behalf of affected clients, said local and state investigators often can’t make final determinations of the cause. That’s most often decided in the litigation that typically follows, he said.

McDonald said his company has investigated 150 gas explosions in the past six years. It represents property owners in an April Durham explosion and the survivor of a May explosion in Jeffersonville, Ind., that killed her husband.

While he can’t comment on the Charlotte case, McDonald said local investigators typically “are limited in terms of what their investigation will conclude,” McDonald said Wednesday. “What they’re looking for are whether there were accelerants such as gasoline — arson — to rule those things out. At that point, when they can rule out some intent, they’ll determine (the cause) is unknown at this point.”

Private investigators hired for litigation, he said, can usually pinpoint a gas leak if that’s what caused an explosion, but rarely the source that ignited it. If equipment was faulty, he added, a key question decided in courts is typically whether the utility or the customer owned it.

Natural gas leaks that lead to explosions are not rare. Between 2012 and 2016, leaks or breaks were factors in natural gas ignitions that resulted in an average of 800 U.S. home fires, 20 civilian deaths and 50 civilian injuries each year, the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association says.

In the April explosion in Durham, a coffee shop owner died and 25 other people were injured when a building exploded and collapsed after a gas line was punctured. A second victim, an employee of the gas utility PSNC, died days later. At least 15 buildings were damaged in the explosion.

Last year, two people died when a landslide caused a gas leak that destroyed a house near Boone.

An explosion sparked by natural gas killed four people and injured dozens more at a ConAgra Foods plant in Garner in 2009.

Explosion affected neighbors

On Tuesday, two people in neighboring homes were treated for minor injuries after the explosion, according to Medic. The force of the blast damaged houses on both sides and across the street, fire officials said.

Two nearby homes, along with the debris from the Karams’ home, were still blocked off Wednesday.

Fire officials said Wednesday afternoon that other residents in the area are not in danger.

The Karams’ house on James Jack Lane, near Ballantyne Country Club, sold for $1.27 million in 2015, county records show. It was two stories with more than 6,000 square feet of finished space, records show.

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Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.