Fatal McCall home explosion caused by propane buildup in crawl space, fractured pipes
Ruth Brown, Idaho Statesman
Published at | Updated at
State Fire Marshal Knute Sandahl released his findings Wednesday regarding the cause of a home explosion in McCall last month that killed one man and seriously injured a teenage girl.
The March 17 fire occurred at 910 Fairway Drive, near the McCall Golf Course, leaving a crater. The Idaho Statesman reports the 3,000-square-foot house exploded because a buildup of propane in a crawl space was ignited by the home’s furnace, which had been relocated to the ground floor.
Jonathan Robinson Field Jr., 69, of McCall, died in the explosion. Valley County Coroner Scott Carver said Field died as a result of blunt force trauma to the chest, not the fire or inhalation of gas or smoke.
Sandahl said two McCall firefighters, Jon Metz and Jason Beck, were nearby running errands when the explosion occurred and responded with only their protective clothing and a pressurized-water fire extinguisher. The firefighters headed to the scene before the explosion was even reported because they saw and heard it.
“Their actions, in my opinion, are the reason why this young lady was able to survive this horrific event,” Sandahl said.
Sandahl said interviews conducted with the survivor found that she detected the smell of propane and told Field, but it was “disregarded as the smell of dirty laundry.”
Sandahl explained that propane leaked up through the house’s floorboards and created a fireball when it ignited, and that was followed by an explosion when air was introduced into the crawl space.
The joints in the propane piping system had fractures, believed to be caused by heavy snow, and that also contributed to the explosion, Sandahl said.
Debris from the explosion spread 200 yards and damaged surrounding residences.
After the press conference, McCall Fire Chief Garrett de Jong described the rescue by his firefighters. They faced 8-foot snow banks on either side of the home and a 20-foot wall of flames. The girl was buried up to her shoulders in rubble and had been in the basement at the time of the explosion.
When looking at what’s left of the property today, de Jong told the Statesman that “it’s unbelievable” she was able to survive.
The firefighters made their way into the home, shielded the girl from the flames and pulled her to safety using the meager equipment they had.
The girl is still hospitalized but “is making a miraculous recovery,” Sandahl said.
He noted that it’s important to clear off snow from gas meters or propane tanks, and move snow away from the sides of a house when clearing a roof. And people who heat their homes with propane or natural gas should also have flammable gas detectors in their homes, the fire marshal stressed.
Notably, a similar problem occurred at an Idaho Fish and Game officer’s residence in rural Idaho County the day before the explosion in McCall.
On March 16, a Fish and Game Department-owned house exploded in Powell Junction after the retirement of a resident conservation officer who had lived in the home. An Idaho State Police trooper who lives in the area stopped to meet the new occupant of the house and they detected a propane leak, Sandahl said. They turned off the gas and opened windows, but the propane had pooled in a crawl space because propane is heavier than air.
When the men could no longer smell the gas, they lit a wood-burning stove to heat the house and closed the windows. Sandahl said that created a vacuum and an explosion occurred.
The trooper received burns on his face and hands, and one Fish and Game officer received minor burns.