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Originally published September 26, 2011 at 7:06 AM | Page modified September 27, 2011 at 10:13 PM

Were blast, earlier leaks related?

A gas leak was found in the service line leading to a house that exploded, rocking a North Seattle neighborhood early Monday, according to a utility-company spokeswoman. Two people were injured in the fire and 11 homes were evacuated after the explosion.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Raw Video: Seattle home explodes

quotes Yesterday a natural gas leak was reported just a few blocks away from that location. ... Read more
quotes All of the leaks on Sunday were unrelated to the explosion and fire on Monday, Monfried... Read more
quotes More details on location, this is in the Pinehurst neighborhood, corner of 125th and... Read more

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A gas leak was found in the service line leading to a house that exploded, rocking a North Seattle neighborhood early Monday, according to a utility-company spokeswoman.

"The pipe that fed the house had a hole in it," Martha Monfried said Monday night

The home's two residents had smelled gas Sunday but decided not to report a possible leak, Seattle Fire Department (SFD) spokesman Kyle Moore said earlier in the day. The explosion occurred when the couple who lived in the house woke up and turned on an electrical device, possibly a light switch, Moore said. Shock waves shattered windows in surrounding homes and woke residents miles away.

Firefighters responded just after 6 a.m. to find the home fully in flames and fire approaching two adjacent structures.

Two people in the house were taken to Harborview Medical Center. Hong Ingham, earlier identified as Hong Phung, a 50-year-old Crista Ministries dietitian, was reported in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center. Her husband, David Ingham, a 53-year-old Seattle City Light employee, was in satisfactory condition with minor burns. He has spoken with fire investigators.

Phung's sister, The Phung, said she visited the hospital Monday and planned to return Monday night.

"I hardly believe they survived. I thank God," she said.

The Phung added that after the couple smelled gas, Ingham, an electrical lineman for 21 years, "checked everywhere and didn't find anything."

The adjacent structures weren't damaged. After the explosion, officials evacuated 11 homes and an empty day-care center, taking evacuees to the nearby Church of the Nazarene as Puget Sound Energy (PSE) crews went door to door checking for other leaks. Residents returned to their homes at about 1:30 p.m.

After talking with Ingham, SFD investigators determined the explosion occurred within the house.

Initially, officials said that despite three natural-gas leaks reported in the neighborhood on Sunday, the explosion was an "isolated incident."

However, Monday night, Monfried said the leak near the house that exploded was similar to the leaks reported on Sunday. She said the holes in the three-quarter-inch pipes had been caused by "electrical arcing" after a tree fell on a Seattle City Light power line.

PSE is repairing the gas-line leaks, and crews were checking lines within a two-mile radius Monday night. On Tuesday, Monfried said, the checks will expand to a five-mile radius.

"We'll be in the neighborhood for quite some time," she said.

PSE is happy to conduct home inspections for worried residents, she said.

State utilities engineer Joe Subsits said earlier Monday that his agency was exploring a theory that the same electrical issues that PSE identified as the cause of Sunday's leaks might have caused Monday's explosion.

Monfried said the explosion should serve as a reminder for residents to report suspected leaks.

"They smelled gas yesterday, and we really wish they had called," she said. "If you ever smell natural gas, call us."

"The flames were huge"

Neighbors closest to the blast awoke to shattered windows and splintered doors. Putri Hiendarto, 24, was knocked out of bed, as was her mother, Sri.

"I thought it was an earthquake," said Hiendarto, whose family bought their tidy brick house — adjacent to the burned home — one month ago.

Windows in their home were shattered, but no one was hurt, Hiendarto said.

Around the corner, Anthony Palagruti said he awoke to what he thought was a large rock or a car hitting his house, and ran outside. He saw a fence blown over at the blast site, and a fireball erupted within a minute, with flames leaping to the top of a 50-foot tree.

The neighbors, still dressed in pajamas, shared stories on the rain-soaked street. In a house up the block and across the street, windows blew out and items fell off the walls. The owner of that house was injured by something that fell off a wall but was treated at the scene, said Claudia Paulson, who lives there.

"You heard this loud boom, and it kind of made you jump out of bed," she said.

Even several houses away, the explosion and fire were "fairly traumatic," said Désiree Tabares, who lives with her 11-year-old daughter and husband north of the scene.

"The flames were huge," Tabares said. "Particles of the flames were coming into our backyard."

Firefighters received dozens of 911 calls, said Moore, the fire-department spokesman.

Sunday's leaks

The neighborhood's trouble with gas leaks started Sunday afternoon, 15 hours before the explosion.

At about 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Willard Schultz saw a large amount of water running down his cul-de-sac on the 900 block of Northeast 122nd Street. A water and natural-gas leak had occurred at an abandoned house next door, PSE later told him. Gas service was shut down until about 9 p.m., Schultz said.

A second gas leak was reported minutes later in the 12000 block of Eighth Avenue Northeast, Moore said. That leak was fixed after two homes were evacuated.

A third leak occurred at about 8 p.m. on 10th Avenue Northeast at 127th Street, Monfried said.

Initially, the utility said that one of the leaks was caused by a "dig-in" in which a gas line was broken during soil excavation.

But Monday afternoon, Monfried said that information was incorrect. Instead, she said, all three Sunday leaks were caused by electrical arcing.

"Renegade current"

Subsits, the chief pipeline-safety engineer for the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), explained that electrical arcing could cause a "renegade current" leaking from a power station or other source. Such a current, conducted by the metal natural-gas pipe, could cause corrosion and potentially a pipeline leak as it seeks a "path of least resistance" back to its source, he said.

It's "premature" to say if a renegade current problem also caused Monday's explosion until a full investigation is done, Subsits said. If it did, the explosion would be the largest renegade-current-related Subsits has seen.

"We're trying to figure out how widespread this issue is," Subsits said.

It's unclear how long the investigation will take. The UTC has found fault with PSE in the past, issuing a record $1.25 million fine in 2008 because a PSE subcontractor faked leak-inspection records.

Late Monday afternoon, local officials said there was no continuing threat to the neighborhood.

Cautious neighbors returning to their homes Monday afternoon weren't so sure.

"Who knows?" said Ahmad Kamiah, who has lived one house north of the exploded home for seven years, when asked if he felt safe. "Who knows what's going on underground?"

Staff reporters Keith Ervin and Steve Miletich and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com.

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