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Witnesses Say Smelled Gas Before Fatal Restaurant Explosion

February 12, 1986

WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) _ Construction crews working on sewer lines in the town of Derby smelled natural gas days before a restaurant was leveled in an explosion that killed six people, federal investigators were told today.

Daniel Julian, one of three bothers who own the New England Construction Co., also said natural gas odors were strongest on Dec. 6, the day the River Restaurant was destroyed.

″Ever since we started working in Derby, every manhole cover we popped, every piece of earth we dug, there were traces of odors of gas,″ Julian said at a hearing conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.

No local, state or federal agency has assigned a cause to the explosion, but it is widely believed to have originated with a leak of natural gas from a pipeline near the restaurant. On Tuesday, a engineering consultant and a utility official gave conflicting testimony on the gas odors.

″If someone would have told us there was a gas odor or a gas leak, it would have been handled much differently,″ said Howard Weinberg, a customer- service supervisor for Northeast Utilities, which owns the natural gas lines in the area.

Weinberg said Derby’s engineering consultant, Bruce Welter of the firm of Philip Genovese & Associates, never told him that construction crews had detected a gas smell - either on Dec. 5 or Dec. 6.

But Welter said, ″I told him (Weinberg) that the gas was first smelled in the parking lot area for two days.″ He said he has no sense of smell but was informed of the odor by construction workers.

Restaurant owner Alphonse Ippolito testified that he had been told not to worry about natual gas odors he said he smelled Dec. 5-6 because the smell was coming from gas pockets in the soil.

″I talked to Bruce and it was mentioned how this (police) officer said Northeast Utilities said it was just pockets of gas,″ said Ippolito, who was injured and whose sister was among the victims.

Ippolito said he had smelled the gas since construction crews began digging on Main Street.

Weinberg testified after Ippolito that he investigated the construction site on Dec. 5 and 6. He said he didn’t know why he had been called to the scene, but he assumed that the construction company had called because it had uncovered two pipes near the restaurant.

Weinberg said he inspected the pipes and found ″absolutely no crack, no smell whatsoever.″

″I told them I felt it was safe, that there was no gas odor,″ he said.

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