Fire chief: Cause of Long Grove explosion remains a mystery

The scene on the Trenton Court cul-de-sac and surrounding neighborhood in Long Grove after an explosion Friday night obliterated a home was something Jeff Steingart has not experienced in 32 years of firefighting.

“The devastation — it looks like a block that was hit by a tornado,” said Steingart, chief of the Vernon Hills-based Countryside Fire Protection District.

Natural gas is suspected, but investigators on Monday continued to examine the gas service to the house as well as the meter, appliances, valves, pipes and other materials in the gated community of million-dollar homes bordering the Royal Melbourne Country Club.

Countryside is being assisted in the investigation by the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The force of the blast, which damaged an estimated 50 homes within a quarter mile and was heard and felt several miles away, could make finding the specific cause difficult.

“It's going to be a long, arduous process because of the amount of damage,” Steingart said. “We may never know because of the amount of destruction.”

That no one was killed or seriously injured was another source of amazement, Steingart said. A woman was home alone at the time of the explosion. Her husband and dogs were out of town.

“I would classify it as almost a miracle,” he said.

“She didn't smell it. She was in her master bathroom brushing her teeth, heard a pop and saw a fire outside her bathroom window,” he said. The woman called 911 and was walking across the street to a neighbor's house when the explosion occurred.

“She was probably about 100 feet away from her front door,” Steingart said.

About a half dozen nearby homes were severely damaged, he added, and the overall damage likely is “in the millions” of dollars. About six homes are uninhabitable.

Gas service initially was turned off to 36 homes in the neighborhood, and service to eight, including the house that was destroyed, remained off Monday at the request of investigators, said Jennifer Block, spokeswoman for North Shore Gas. The company has about 159,000 customers in 54 North suburban communities.

The company had a representative in the neighborhood sometime before the explosion, Block said.

“We did have a technician in the area investigating the smell of gas before the explosion,” she said. “That's all I can confirm.”

Because of its pungent odor, natural gas is easy to detect. Fire officials and gas companies emphasize that anyone who smells natural gas should leave home immediately and not use the telephone, flashlight or electrical switches before calling 911.

“A gas leak is an emergency,” Steingart said. “Leave the area, being careful not to generate any ignition sources like turning the light switches on and off.”

Gas line safety has become a concern at the state level after reports of explosions throughout the country, including a blast that killed eight people and destroyed two buildings last month in East Harlem, New York City.

The Illinois Commerce Commission on May 6 will continue a discussion with representatives from gas utilities and staff members regarding the condition of the natural gas infrastructure in the state, according to ICC spokesman Beth Bosch.

The ICC will investigate what local utilities are doing to prevent events like that in East Harlem and hear testimony about how pipeline safety information is communicated to customers, the public, and emergency personnel.

Peoples Gas will give a presentation on its gas main replacement program, which has been ongoing in Chicago for several years. The company has 1,406 miles of cast iron pipeline in its distribution system, according to the ICC.

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  A work crew pumps water out of the basement to help facilitate the investigation of an explosion Friday night that leveled a Long Grove home and damaged many others. Investigators remained on the scene of the blast Monday, though they admit that the extent of the damage may keep them from discovering its exact cause. Joe Lewnard/
  Bystanders on the Royal Melbourne Country Club view the wreckage from Friday night's explosion on Trenton Court in Long Grove. Investigators continue to sift through the wreckage in hopes of finding clues to the cause of the blast. Bob Chwedyk/
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