Gatesville explosion

A water tower stands next to the damaged portion of the Coryell Memorial Hospital in Gatesville after an explosion June 26, 2018. The tower, thought to have structural damage, still stands while investigators work the scene

Preparation has begun for demolition of the building where a gas-related explosion two months ago tore through Coryell Memorial Hospital in Gatesville. But questions remain about how exactly the blast was triggered.

One of the questions: Could that blast have somehow been foreseen?

Three construction workers died and 13 were injured in the June 26 explosion that sent thick smoke into the sky. Of the 13 who were injured, three remain hospitalized, according to Gatesville police Chief Nathan Gohlke. Those three are on the road to recovery, undergoing rehabilitation treatment, he added.

Skip Burch, CEO of Lochridge-Priest, the construction firm employing the workers, has described severe burns and said the men will deal with them for the rest of their lives.

The utility plant building, in which the workers labored on a project for a new expansion, suddenly looked like a war zone June 26.

The 117,000-square-foot project began in November 2016 and was set to feature new operating rooms, a new 25-bed hospital portion, a 16-bed rehab center and new administrative offices. No major hiccups were reported prior to June 26.

Agencies that include the Coryell County Sheriff’s Office, Gatesville police and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives completed their on-site investigations and released the site to the hospital July 1.

Independent investigators followed. They represented multiple parties, including insurance officials and lawyers for Wilbur Dimas, one of the construction workers who died following the blast.

Attorneys for Dimas were granted a restraining order July 3 in the McLennan County District Court. The order was an effort to protect the primary physical evidence that could indicate the cause of the explosion, according to Dimas’ attorneys. The order was lifted July 31, and cleanup continued.

The state Fire Marshal’s office has spearheaded what remains of the official investigation. No agencies involved in the official investigation of the incident have revealed any reasons for the blast.

Many moving parts comprise the incident, according to Lt. Brian Fine with the Fire Marshal’s office. With the site of the blast out of its hands, the Fire Marshal’s office will focus on subject interviews — a process which Fine said could take several more months.

“Really, anything would be speculation,” Fine said on the cause of the explosion. “I don’t think anybody anticipated something like this happening. There weren’t any indications, and every case is unique. Obviously, when they were going through inspections, the workers, they would react to anything and do what they would have to do to get it fixed.”

All natural gas is odorless, but requires a certain measure of an additive called mercaptan, Fine said. Mercaptan makes for the common rotten egg smell generally associated with gas.

Atmos Energy, which has a natural gas system in the area, is required to ensure this.

“Our investigation included multiple leak surveys of the natural gas system in the area up to the outlet of the meter station. There were no leaks on Atmos Energy’s natural gas system,” the company said in an email.

Company representatives also reiterated that odorants are required to be added to natural gas so it is “readily detectable by a person with a normal sense of smell.”

“We also conducted testing of odorant levels in our natural gas and found the levels to be in compliance with regulations,” the company said. In addition, Atmos said, adding that people shouldn’t rely on smell alone to detect the presence of natural gas. In general, people should rely on all senses, including sight and hearing, to detect any abnormalities.

Workers with Lochridge-Priest, the company employing those at the scene June 26, recall no such odors, or any indication of oncoming tragedy, according to media reports.

Future construction

Hospital CEO David Byrom has said at previous news conferences that the project will eventually continue, noting Coryell Memorial is financially “healthy.”

Once the explosion site is leveled, officials will determine whether to place the new facility at that site, according to hospital spokeswoman Carly Latham.

State agencies reviewed environmental samples from the site, or “selective demos,” and determined proceeding with the demolition poses no harm. Latham did not detail which specific agencies received the samples when asked.

mpayne@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7553

mpayne@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7553

Herald staff writer

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