Staff Photographer

The Texas agency that regulates pipelines has joined federal investigators to look into an explosion that killed a girl in a northwest Dallas neighborhood where residents said they’d smelled gas earlier this month.

Officials haven’t said whether they believe the gas explosion Friday is related to a leak at a nearby apartment complex Sunday or to a pair of house fires in a neighboring street that injured two people last week.

The Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees pipeline operators, said it had sent two inspectors to Dallas to work closely with local and federal investigators.

"The RRC will determine if there were any violations of our rules," spokeswoman Ramona Nye said in an email.

Linda Rogers, the 12-year-old girl who died Friday in a gas explosion, was a two-year member of the Falcons Elite Cheer team. It performed in a competition Friday night in her memory.

Linda Rogers, a 12-year-old known as Michellita, died Friday after an explosion blew her home on Espanola Drive off its foundation and collapsed the roof.

The blast prompted a mandatory evacuation that included residents and about 700 students at nearby Foster Elementary School, which reopened Monday after Atmos Energy officials cleared it.

Two house fires earlier in the week on Durango Drive already had neighbors on edge. One was tied to a gas heater, and the other to a stove flare-up. Dallas Fire-Rescue investigators said both were accidents.

Jonathan Gonzalez, whose father suffered burns after he tried to turn up the heat, said his family had called Atmos twice to report the smell of natural gas on Durango Drive earlier this month, KXAS-TV (NBC5) reported.

Then on Sunday, 90 units at the Chapel Creek Apartments on Hidalgo Drive had to be evacuated after a leak was reported. Dallas police continued to block off a section of Webb Chapel Extension near the apartments Monday.

Another incident in the area that alarmed neighbors — a house fire Sunday on Eaton Drive — was caused by a boy who accidentally set a bed on fire while burning sage, authorities said.

Two people who live on Durango Drive said that residents had smelled gas outside their homes for months before the fires and explosion but that they hadn’t reported the odor. Another resident said his cousin had complained to Atmos about a skyrocketing gas bill.

Atmos didn’t return messages seeking comment Monday. The company said earlier that it would replace 2.5 miles of pipe through the area, including natural gas mains and service lines, over the next few days.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are focusing on the house explosion on Espanola Drive but also checked the two houses on Durango Drive where fires had occurred, said Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the agency. The apartment complex is not part of the agency’s investigation at this time, he said.

That investigation could take six months to a year and half if it’s a complex case, according to the agency.

A spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission said it had received no incident notifications for the block of Durango Drive where the two fires happened. The agency couldn’t confirm late Monday whether it had received a report about the apartment gas leak.

A gas explosion rocked this house Friday, sending five people to the hospital in the 3500 block of Espanola Drive in Dallas.

Dallas City Council member Adam Medrano, who represents the neighborhood where the blast occurred, said Monday that he had toured the area and talked to Atmos officials who told him the place was safe for residents because the gas is off. But because there is no gas, Atmos is paying for people to stay in hotels while crews put in new gas lines — a process that could take 10 days, Medrano said.

"They’re confident that once they repair the lines it will be safe," he said.

He added that Atmos has declined to answer questions because of the federal investigation.

"How does this happen? Were the fires related? Were they already working on the lines?" Medrano said. "I’ve asked the same questions. This is being investigated."

Council member Omar Narvaez, who represents the district where the apartments are, could not be reached for comment.

Atmos workers have swarmed the area and excavators dot the working-class neighborhood around the affected homes and apartments.

Firefighters responded to a fire in the 3500 block of Durango Drive on Thursday. Another house in the same block was damaged in a fire a day earlier.

Maria Vielma and Yolanda Gonzalez, who live across from each other on Durango Drive, swapped information Monday afternoon. Neither one of them feels comfortable returning home for good yet — partly because of the inconvenience of being without gas, and partly because they’re scared.

Gonzalez said she had come back for a little bit to feed her dogs while Vielma said she was keeping an eye on her property.

"When they tell me that I’m safe, I will come back," Vielma said.

The women said they had smelled gas outside their homes for months, though they didn’t report it. They said their gas bills weren’t higher than usual.

But down the road, Luis Gilberto Martínez said his cousin had complained to Atmos around November when their gas bill soared from about $75 to $200. Martínez said company workers came to the house a few days later and said things looked good.

The gas bill went down the following month but jumped again in January, Martínez said.

Martínez’s partner, Jose Guadalupe Marin, echoed other neighbors who said they had detected the smell of gas outside their homes.

The Dallas Morning News couldn’t confirm the account about the gas bill with Atmos, and it’s unclear if residents other than Jonathan Gonzalez’s family reported gas odors to the company.

Next door, Griselda Portillo examined the damage at her home, where her husband was burned while cooking on a stove. The white clapboard house looked charred inside and out. Her neighbors said they heard what sounded like an explosion the morning of the fire.

Portillo said her husband is recuperating. She has heard her neighbors’ reports about odors and strange gas bills, but she said she hadn’t had problems.

Martínez said he, his partner and his cousin have packed emergency bags in case they need to leave the neighborhood again.

"What happened to that house could have happened to mine," he said.

Staff writers Jeff Mosier and Dana Branham contributed to this report.

Source Article