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Gas Explosion in Streator

Monday, Jan 31, 1994

     It was the coldest day of the year, with temperatures at 20 below. At 7:50 am, while getting ready for work, I received a phone call at home. My office wasn't opening until 9:00 am. It was Mike Gulo. His office is located caddy corner to my parents building. "Hey Steve, you need to get down here right away" he said. "Why?" I replied. "There's a problem with your building" he stated. He did not want to explain any further, but after repeated probing by me he stated "Something must have exploded, because one of your windows broke out."

    I hurriedly got dressed and headed downtown. I was in shock when I turned the corner to see the rear end of the building completely collapsed, and the front portion of my office blown out onto the Main St sidewalk. A window blew out, Really? I immediately called my wife Julie, and she quickly arrived .

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      At 7:00 am, someone had reported a strong gas smell at Steve's Bakery. NI Gas was notified, and the Streator Fire Dept showed up. The fire truck parked in the parking lot adjacent to Gulo's Law Office. The gas company is required to respond within 60 minutes. At approximately 7:45, fireman Ken Berta had been investigating our middle office, LaSalle Textiles. He had his nose pushed up against the window. Not seeing anything questionable, he walked back across Monroe St. After reaching the opposite sidewalk, our building exploded. I have been told by several people, they heard the noise from several blocks away! A small fire erupted in our basement, and the fire dept quickly put it out. 5 minutes later, NI Gas showed up.

    A two block circumference from our office was immediately shut down (gas and electric) and evacuated, which included most of the downtown area. Viewing the action from a distant barrier, the gas odor was so strong, it felt like we were standing right over the gas leak. Starting at our building, the gas company worked backwards, trying to find the gas leak. It took them 2 hours, before they found the leak below the road, at the intersection of Monroe St and the alley. I was in awe, as these workers sent sparks flying with jackhammers directly above the leaking gas, breaking through the concrete, in order to reach the damaged pipe.

There were two other tenants in our building at the time of the explosion. The upstairs was vacant. The rear office (the single story portion of the building) was occupied by Pavlick Tax and Business Services (Elisa Pavlick). That section was completely destroyed. They lost all records and computers. The first floor center office was occupied by LaSalle Textiles (Dr. Baumissamy). They were able to salvage their computers. And my office was in the front. The pressure of the explosion went through the center office and released through our front walls onto the front sidewalks.

At this time we were blessed with great support from our family and friends. The first person to show up at the sight was Merle Vissering, my State Farm Insurance Agent. He quickly consoled us, "Don't worry Doc, you have excellent replacement cost insurance. Right now, you are distressed, but trust me, it will all work out in the long run!" He was correct. State Farm was quick to dispatch the claims. We were able to replace all our equipment with new models. We eventually were able to build a beautiful new office on that site.

Next, my friend Scott Bulthuis showed up. He took off work to support us. I told him there was nothing we could do but watch, but he stayed. About noon, we were allowed to go into the building to start salvaging. My parents John and Cai, my sister Pam, and my friend Alice Kielar showed up all the way from Calumet City. Julie's parents Karen and Jerry Burcar, her sister and brother-in-law Debbie and Bob Hoskins were there. My staff including Carole Brust and Lori Topolski also helped. I also believe some Lions Club members showed up, including Jerry Vandemark and Jim Olmsted. So many people helped during this hectic time, I apologize if I am forgetting someone. Dr. Baumissamy (LaSalle Textiles) quickly procured the vacant JC Penny's building. Everyone fought the bitter cold to help us move whatever we could into the temporary location. We saved all of our computers. After 3 months, we were only missing two patient charts, and we eventually found those two charts!

It was determined that the leaking gas had entered the three building's basements surrounding this alley intersection. My building was unoccupied, A few employees were in Christoff's Appliance, and 20-30 people were in Steve's Bakery. All three basements were full of gas, but fortunately, my building was the one to blow. Miraculously, no one was injured in the blast!

     Later on that week, I had to meet with the State Fire Marshall at the building. He determined that the explosion started in our basement. The weather was so cold, the ground was frozen solid. The underground gas leak had nowhere to go but into our basements. Gas explosions are actually quite rare, because the gas has to reach a high concentration (6%) before it becomes ignitable. An enclosed area with a continuous gas leak is required to reach these conditions. (That is why opening a window is recommended anytime you smell gas). This is what occurred in our non-ventilated basement. The gas concentrated to the ideal level, and the furnace sparked the explosion.

The Fire Marshall showed me that my basement posts were not anchored to the basement floor. Anchoring them could have limited some of the damage. Then he took me upstairs. He showed me a faint line on the wall, about 6 foot above the floor, that went completely around each room. He stated that the basement explosion had raised my floor up to that point! Everything in my office, even heavy equipment, had been briefly raised 6 feet, and the dropped back down!

The good news was that the explosion was so intense, it used up all the available oxygen. That meant a very small fire, and very little water damage by the Fire Dept to put out the fire. The Fire Marshall also said we were very lucky, because while we were salvaging everything, the only thing holding up the floor we were walking on was the frozen water from the Fire Department!

     It was later determined that a gas pipe at the intersection of Monroe and the alley had been damaged a few years earlier, during the construction of the new sewer lines going through the alleys. These gas pipes have a protective rubber cover. If the cover is nicked by a bulldozer, it will slowly corrode the pipe. The gas leak may not occur for a couple of years.

Julie & I were blessed to have such great support from our family and friends during this stressful time.

Thank God no one was injured. Thanks everyone for your support.

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