Mike Nowatzki, Published October 19 2009
Xcel settles with family in house explosion
Luul Omar, who was severely burned in the Sept. 2, 2008, blast, said in her first interview since then that the settlement covers her, her four children and three of her siblings.
“We finish it already. We agree,” she said.
Neither Xcel Energy nor Philip Sieff, the Minneapolis attorney representing the family, would disclose the settlement amount.
“The matter has been resolved confidentially and we are unable to disclose any information regarding it,” Xcel spokeswoman Bonnie Lund wrote in an
e-mailed statement, which was confirmed by Sieff.
The settlement file was sealed in Hennepin County (Minn.) District Court, but online court information sheds some light on it.
District Court Judge Janet Poston approved the settlement on Sept. 2, exactly one year after the blast that leveled the twinhome unit Omar’s family rented at 2215 15th St. S.
Omar is listed as petitioner in the settlement. The minors are identified by their initials as parties to the case, but their full names are listed in orders approving the settlement and disbursement of funds.
Omar identified the minors as her four children, two sisters and brother, all between ages 8 and 16.
Omar was in a coma for several days after the explosion. She said she’s had 36 skin grafts since the incident, and she declined to be photographed.
“I’m not (the) same like before,” she said.
She said she continues to undergo daily physical and occupational therapy for walking and her hands.
“Actually, I’m doing very, very good right now,” she said by phone last week from her south Fargo apartment. “I feel better.”
The children are “doing fine,” she said.
A total of 13 people were in the twinhome when the south unit exploded.
Omar said she went downstairs to do laundry around midnight that night, when everyone else was almost asleep. She said she was washing her clothes and put the laundry in and had taken about two steps toward the stairway when the house exploded.
Omar said she had turned on the light when she went downstairs, but she doesn’t know if that’s what ignited the gas.
After the explosion, Xcel said it found a pinhole-sized leak in the service line, which allowed gas to migrate into the house.
North Dakota Public Service Commission staff members are reviewing the case and will recommend whether Xcel should be fined for safety violations. The PSC has asked Xcel to file documents related to the incident by Oct. 16.
A PSC staff report says the leak was found at a socket coupler joint that connected the service line to the plastic pipe that fed gas to the house.
A forensic engineering consultant hired by the PSC to test the pipe blamed its failure in part on “a cavity formed by debris entrapped at the time of welding that served as a stress concentrator.”
The PSC staff report says a visual inspection of the coupler fusion joint from the failed pipe “revealed that the joint was not straight … and that the fusion bead on the riser side of the socket coupler was irregular.”
The pipe was manufactured in 1972 by now-defunct Century Utility Products Inc. and installed in 1975 by Northern States Power Co., which now does business as Xcel Energy.
The federal government issued a bulletin in 1999 warning that Century pipe “may fail in service due to its poor resistance to brittle-like cracking.” The bulletin was prompted by several incidents involving Century pipe, including a 1979 house explosion in Tuscola, Ill., and a 1994 fatal explosion at a bar in Waterloo, Iowa.
Xcel agreed to replace Century pipe in Minnesota after an Oct. 4, 2005, house explosion in Cottage Grove, Minn., that bore similarities to the Fargo blast.
Last October, Xcel announced plans to replace within two years all Century pipe installed in North Dakota from 1971 to 1976.
Sieff, an attorney with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP, said at the time that it was “unfortunate and in fact tragic that the decision to remove the pipe had to wait until after catastrophe was brought upon an innocent family.”
Xcel initially expected to replace 13.5 miles of mains and 1,300 services to homes and businesses in North Dakota at an estimated cost of $3.3 million.
Since then, the project’s scope has grown to 25.1 miles of mains and 2,200 to 2,400 services with a total estimated cost of $5 million, Lund said, adding crews are still field-checking some areas to see if pipe needs to be replaced.
Xcel’s contractor has assigned additional crews to the project, and they are working extended hours six days a week to try to finish it before winter, Lund said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528