2004-03-31 / Front Page
A decade later, legacy of Edison blast persists
BY ALISON GRANITO and BRYAN SABELLA
EDISON — A decade later, local officials can still remember the explosion that leveled eight buildings in the Durham Woods apartment complex like it was yesterday.
Mayor George A. Spadoro, Councilman Parag Patel and representatives from the township’s emergency services gathered on March 24, at the now-rebuilt complex, to mark the 10th anniversary of the explosion of the Texas Eastern natural gas pipeline that runs near the complex.
The fire, which destroyed eight buildings, displaced 1,500 residents, caused $25 million in property damage and pushed the township’s police, fire departments and the first aid squad to the limit, officials recalled last week.
However, in what several local officials described as a miracle, no one died as a direct result of the explosion. One nearby resident suffered a fatal heart attack and is often considered a casualty of the blast, local officials said.
Although it is not immediately clear that the complex was the scene of a disaster 10 years ago, scars from the blast and the resulting fire, which burned for three days, can still be seen.
Spadoro pointed to petrified trees in the woods behind the complex as evidence of the scene that unfolded at the complex late at night on March 24, 1994.
Clara Barton First Aid Squad member Richard Willey, who was squad captain in 1994 and lives a block away from the complex, could not believe his eyes when he arrived at Durham Woods immediately after the explosion.
"It looked like a war just went on," he said in an interview last week.
"I didn’t know what to expect," Willey, a 27-year veteran on the squad, said of his feelings on his ride to Durham Woods.
What he found was a scene he could only describe in terms of a famous horror movie.
"It almost looked like ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ " Willey said, adding that many residents who had bolted from the scene of the blast were wandering dazed in their pajamas.
One of the most common threads in the recollections of the various officials was the intense heat generated by the blaze.
Patrolman Robert Dudash, who was an employee of the township but had yet to join the department in 1994, said he recalled scenes suggestive of a war zone.
"It was a disaster. Cars were burned down to metal frames. They were indistinguishable," he said. "You could actually see the plastic [from the bumpers] melted to the ground."
Police Chief Edward Costello said what he remembered most was not only the intense heat, but the heroic efforts of the firefighters who fought the blaze.
"The soles of their shoes were melting. I don’t know how they did it," the chief said.
Costello said a few things he has seen in his years on the job as a police officer compare to the magnitude of the Durham Woods incident.
Mayor Spadoro said the incident, which occurred only three months after he took office, left its mark on the township in more ways than one.
In 1994, the township was untested by a disaster on the level of Durham Woods, he said.
Over the past decade, the township has consistently worked to upgrade its emergency services communications capabilities.
The mayor cited the township’s reverse 911 system, a "state-of-the-art" emergency communications center, new public safety equipment, and the civilian emergency response team (ECERT) as examples of measures taken to make the township safer.
In addition to forcing the township to take a close look at its emergency preparedness, Durham Woods will also have another legacy.
Last week, local and state officials said significant progress has been made in preventing similar accidents, but that efforts must be increased anyway.
On the anniversary of the blast, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities held a news conference at the Home Depot store on Route 1 to announce a new partnership with the chain to aggressively promote the state’s One Call program.
Speakers included state Sen. Barbara Buono D-Middlesex, Edison Mayor George Spadoro, Vice President of Gas Delivery at PSE&G Peter A. Cistaro, and Jeanne M. Fox, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
The One Call program, which was instituted largely because of the Edison catastrophe, requires that anyone planning to dig for any purpose — commercial or residential — must call 1-800-272-1000 three full business days in advance. Technicians will then be sent to the site free of charge to mark off any underground utilities or communications lines.
The One Call program is "one of the most progressive in the country," Fox said. "We have collected more than $3.5 million in fines so far, and calls have tripled over the last 10 years."
"The frequency of damage to our facilities has been cut in half," Cistaro said. "But it’s not enough; we’re not satisfied."
The partnership with Home Depot will include displays in all 50 stores statewide, as well as One Call information placed directly on digging and excavation equipment the stores sell and rent.
In addition to the Home Depot program, the state is rolling out 30-second commercials that began running last week on the New Jersey Network and Channel 13, has produced a 12-minute video and quick reference cards for contractors, as well as increased signage around the state and One Call billing inserts for all 2.2 million gas utility customers.
Efforts in the near future will include training programs for New York and New Jersey Port Authority engineers, outreach training programs for excavators and increased inspections of gas pipeline transmission and distribution facilities.
Officials also cited a research and a development project that involves the placing of fiber optic cables alongside gas lines that will sense digging.
For all of the good the state has done in protecting underground gas pipelines over the years, it can only address intrastate lines — interstate lines fall under federal jurisdiction, officials said.
"Federal pipeline safety requirements for these interstate systems are minimum at best," Spadoro said. "From sporadic testing and inspection mandates to the lack of strong automated and remote pressure-sensitive shut-off systems, the federal law does not do enough to protect their pipelines and the communities where they are located."
Spadoro testified before the Senate in 1995, asking for mandatory remote shut-off valves on gas pipelines and has since urged Congress and the Bush administration to pass tougher safety laws.
"These lines are life-threatening lines," he said.
Just before midnight March 23, 1994, a portion of a 45-mile-long gas pipeline owned and operated by Texas Eastern Transmission, Houston, exploded at the spot where it runs alongside the Durham Woods apartments.
Spadoro recalled being up late that night reading at his home about three miles from the site when he noticed, "The window was glowing. Basically, it was like daylight at midnight," he said.
Officials say the catastrophic damage was all caused by unsafe digging, likely done by a backhoe, that resulted in what Fox said was a 1 1/2-inch long by 1/5-inch deep hole in the pipe. Fox said gas escaped at the rate of 270 pounds of pressure per square inch, and fires burned as hot as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.