STEPHENVILLE, Texas (CBS11 I-TEAM) – Police officer body cameras captured a Stephenville resident’s unimaginable agony moments after a six-foot ball of flame engulfed him and set his Stephenville home on fire last Mother’s Day.
Raul Pedroza, a 57-year-old Navy veteran, and his friend, Russell McElyea, were severely burned by the blast.
“To turn around and see not only your best friend, but a human being, literally covered in flames is something I will never, ever forget,” McElyea told CBS 11 News.
Neither man said they smelled gas in the home before Pedroza lit the stove to cook lunch.
“There was no smell of gas, none whatsoever,” said McElyea, who is now recovering at home after two months in the hospital.
Pedroza, who suffered burns to nearly 70 percent of his body, remains bedridden and under constant care.
In a lawsuit, Pedroza’s family faults Atmos Energy for failing to warn him the odor in natural gas “has a propensity to fade as a result of two different chemical reactions” and can “become undetectable to normal human olfactory senses.”
Natural gas is tasteless, invisible and odor-free, but federal law requires an odorant to be injected so that consumers can be alerted to leaks. For many, the odorant gives gas a rotten egg smell.
Texas became the first state to require adding the pungent odor following the March 18, 1937 schoolhouse explosion in New London, Texas. The blast – the worst school disaster in U.S. history – killed nearly 300 children and adults.
But odorization is not bulletproof. The I-Team has learned scientists and safety experts have warned for decades that odor can fade or lose its smell for a number of reasons including: pipeline age, length, and composite, not enough odorant added to begin with, or absorption into pipe walls and soil.
“I’ve never heard of the concept of odor fade,” said Dean Gresham, a Dallas attorney who represents the Pedroza family. “It’s not something I believe is public knowledge.”
The Railroad Commission of Texas regulates gas utilities in the state. The I-Team asked the state agency if gas companies are required to inform customers about odor fade.
“To be clear, the terms you are using “odor fade” and “odor loss” are not found in state or federal pipeline safety rules, nor are these terms found in state or federal rules for public awareness/education requirements,” Ramona Nye, Texas Railroad Commission spokeswoman, responded in an email.
In a statement, Atmos said the sense of smell is a highly reliable indicator of natural gas release for most people.
“However, continued exposure can desensitize the sense of smell,” Atmos wrote in an email to the I-Team. “In certain rare conditions, the odor intensity can be diminished by physical and/or chemical processes, such as when gas passes through certain soil conditions.”
Texas law requires utilities to conduct odor tests once a year.
“But it does not require Atmos or any other energy company to actually report those results to the state to the federal government or to the public,” Gresham said.
Pedroza’s family recently moved him to a hospital in California to be closer to them. They’ve also launched a GoFundMe page to help with his medical expenses.
“Raul is tired, physically tired for going through all the pain that he has been going through the last year,” Lisa Pedroza, his sister-in-law, told CBS 11 News. “He told me today that he was sorry to tell me, ‘I just want God to take me.’”
Ricky Pedroza says his younger brother doesn’t like talking about the explosion.
“He knows what happened, but he’d rather not think of it,” Ricky said. “I think mentally is the worst the worst thing for him right now.”
Investigators ruled the fire an accident, fueled by an open gas value. Regardless, Pedroza’s family maintains he and his friend should have smelled the dangerous gas collecting in his home.
“It’s an unbelievable thing, and it’s all about gas that you cook with,” Ricky Pedroza said.
Atmos says it has no evidence that odor fade occurred at the Pedroza house.
“I’m concerned that this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” his brother said.
Utilities odorize natural gas so that it is “readily detectable by a person with a normal sense of smell” as required by federal and state regulations. The odorant we use in our Mid-Tex Division adds a “rotten egg” odor to natural gas. Our technicians conduct periodic sampling with instruments to assure the proper concentration of odorant throughout our pipeline system.
For most people, the sense of smell is a highly reliable indicator of natural gas release. However, continued exposure can desensitize the sense of smell. In certain rare conditions, the odor intensity can be diminished by physical and/or chemical processes, such as when gas passes through certain soil conditions.
Please remind everyone: do not rely on your sense of smell alone to detect the presence of natural gas: use any of your senses—smell, listen, or look—to check for signs of a leak. If you ever smell or otherwise detect leaking natural gas, leave the premises immediately and call 911 and Atmos Energy at 1-866-322-8667.
You asked about the pending litigation in Stephenville. Atmos Energy has no evidence that odor fade occurred at the residence.