Minnehaha Academy gas explosion lawsuit: Gas workers were ‘blatantly unsafe,’ ‘ran to save themselves’ before warning others

Minnehaha Academy gas explosion lawsuit: Gas workers were ‘blatantly unsafe,’ ‘ran to save themselves’ before warning others

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The Minnehaha Academy gas explosion never should have happened, and no one should have died. But the gas workers apparently erred, and then “ran to save themselves.”

Those allegations are at the heart of a lawsuit poised to be filed Wednesday in Hennepin County District Court by the family of one of two people killed in the Aug. 2 explosion in the Christian prep school in Minneapolis.

The explosion essentially leveled an entire building on the leafy campus of the upper school, injuring nine and killing receptionist Ruth Berg, 47, and custodian John Carlson, 82. School wasn’t in session when it happened, or the casualties might have been much worse.

Workers were relocating a gas meter when explosive natural gas filled a portion of the building, leading to the blast, according to early statements from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the event.

Wednesday’s lawsuit — the first connected to the blast — was filed by relatives of Berg, who was engaged to be married this month.

The wrongful-death suit alleges the gas workers, who are not named, and their employers, CenterPoint Energy and Eagan-based Master Mechanical, were negligent on numerous points:

  • The building should have been evacuated before the “abnormally dangerous” work began, and employees should have been told about the work.
  • The workers failed to close shut-off valves upstream from the meter before it was disconnected, allowing gas under pressure to stream into the basement area where they were working.
  • Once they disconnected the meter, the area became flooded with gas. “However, rather than alerting building occupants and people in the vicinity of the danger and the need to take immediate action, the (gas workers) … ran to save themselves and ignored the safety of others,” the suit alleges.

“This is the kind of thing that never, ever should have happened,” said Fred Pritzker, an attorney representing Berg’s family.

Master Mechanical released the following statement Wednesday: “We are reviewing the litigation and will respond accordingly. Out of respect for the various ongoing investigations, we will not be discussing the details at this time. We continue to actively cooperate with all state, local and federal agencies investigating this tragic event. We ask that you continue to keep in your thoughts and prayers all those affected by the incidents.”

A spokeswoman for CenterPoint Energy declined to comment Wednesday, saying the company would respond “within the legal process.”

There was a brief warning for some of the 15 to 20 people inside the building Aug. 2.

Witnesses have said an announcement came across in the school saying “Gas leak — everybody out!” but it was only seconds before the explosion.

According to a preliminary NTSB report, a school maintenance worker smelled gas, went to the basement area where the meter work was being done, and promptly called for an evacuation over his hand-held radio. “Less than one minute later, the building exploded,” according to the report.

The gas meters were being moved from the basement to the exterior of the building to make them more accessible for CenterPoint workers, according to the NTSB and the lawsuit.

According to the NTSB: “While workers were removing the existing piping, a full-flow natural gas line at pressure was opened. The workers were unable to mitigate the release of the gas, so they evacuated the area.”

The investigation of the NTSB, which investigates pipeline explosions, continues.

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