Investigators digging to find cause of blast that wrecked rural houseSheriff: propane may have been leaking in basement
Tuesday’s investigation into what caused the Monday night explosion that blew apart a house northwest of Larimore, N.D., killing an infant and injuring a man and woman, included a bomb squad and a backhoe.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
RURAL LARIMORE, N.D. — Tuesday’s investigation into what caused the Monday night explosion that blew apart a house northwest of Larimore, N.D., killing an infant and injuring a man and woman, included a bomb squad and a backhoe.
According to Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost, 6-month-old Samantha Bissell was killed in the blast. Her mother, Danielle Bissell, 22, was injured, as was Bissell’s boyfriend, Justin McMahon, 23.
They were hospitalized overnight at Altru in Grand Forks, where both were in serious condition in the intensive care unit.
By Tuesday night, McMahon had been transferred to a Minneapolis hospital and Bissell to a St. Paul hospital, according to a nursing supervisor.
Neighbors still shaken by the incredible blast said the couple moved into the rented rural house almost a year ago.
The house is 7 miles north and 2½ miles west of Larimore, or about 2 miles east of McCanna, N.D., in a wooded valley of the Turtle River.
McMahon, who has an engineering degree from UND and hails from Nebraska, manages the irrigation systems for Ron McMartin’s farming operation, said McMartin, who lives in Grand Forks. Bissell came from the Denver area before living in Grand Forks, McMartin said.
This is McMahon’s second year working for McMartin, who said, “He’s a first-class person and valued employee.” Two co-workers visited with McMahon in the hospital, and he was conscious and able to explain what he remembered, McMartin said.
The house, at least 70 years old, was moved to the site from a nearby farm in the late 1940s, said neighbors who lived in the house for two years in the early ’50s. It had a water heater as well as a furnace that used propane, Rost said. Neighbors said that, at least previously, it also had a gas range in the kitchen.
Investigators said a local propane gas company on Monday had filled the tank that stands about 15 yards from the house, and a neighbor said she saw the propane truck go by Monday.
A Twin Cities woman who grew up in the area and lived in the house for years, rents it to McMahon and Bissell, said neighbors who know her.
A man who lives only 50 yards north of the house was the first to respond to the blast, which rattled windows in homes a mile or two away, residents said, and was heard by some rural residents as far as 14 miles away on the other side of Larimore. A man near McCanna took a photo of a tall column of smoke rising from the trees at the site shortly after the blast, which many compared with a sonic boom.
Steve Hamre, investigator with the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department, said four members of the regional bomb squad checked the scene Tuesday. It was as much a briefing for their experiences as a search for clues to the cause of the explosion, Hamre said. “They usually see cars blown up, not houses.”
There was no indication of hazardous materials at the scene, investigators said.
Hamre said a state fire marshal at the site was hoping that once debris could be dug out of the basement, more could be learned about the origin of the explosion.
By 4 p.m. Tuesday, a large tracked backhoe from a Larimore contractor had arrived and began the first work of removing rubble from the ruins.
So far, what is known about the incident points toward propane, although it’s all preliminary information, Hamre and others said.
According to several people with knowledge of the scene, McMahon was conscious after the blast and told others what he thought happened.
McMahon’s boss, Ron McMartin, said two of his employees talked to McMahon in the hospital.
“He was fully conscious,” McMartin said.
McMahon said he and Bissell smelled propane, after the tank had been filled Monday. Bissell and the infant went outdoors while McMahon went back in to check on things.
One theory several neighbors voiced, and that Sheriff Bob Rost heard from investigators, was that the pilot light in the hot water heater in the basement had gone out because the propane tank had gone empty, with no pressure.
Once the propane tank was filled Monday afternoon, propane could have begun leaking into the basement because the pilot light was not on.
Something apparently ignited the propane.
Rost said until the investigation is complete, the cause of the blast isn’t known for certain.
But McMartin and others, as did Rost, heard that McMahon said the blast occurred while he was back in the house checking on things. He said just before he was going to again leave the house, he washed his hands in the bathroom because they smelled of propane.
He also told people his last memory before the blast was hearing the water pump in the basement go on. The theory, said several, including Rost, is that perhaps turning on the faucet could have triggered the water pump switching on, which in turn may have created a spark that ignited the collected propane.
Hamre, a veteran investigator, said he had never seen a house so utterly destroyed by an explosion, especially one that did not include any fire.
Still Tuesday afternoon, the debris, from small pieces of window glass, tufts of faded pink insulation, to lumber and larger pieces of furniture was spread 40 yards or more to the north, south and west of the structure, while little debris went east. Hamre said he didn’t know why.
On the east side of the house was a small attached garage. Inside had been a pickup truck which remained buried and all but invisible under debris Tuesday; behind the truck was a car that had been parked just outside the attached garage that appeared relatively undamaged on the sides and back that could be seen.
Those who talked to the first people to respond to the scene said the infant was found lifeless, and Danielle Bissell was found injured and partly covered by a sofa.