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NTSB: Workers were moving gas meter before Minnehaha Academy blast

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Emergency workers respond to an explosion at Minnehaha Academy
Emergency workers at the scene of an explosion at Minnehaha Academy Wednesday morning in Minneapolis.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 4:52 p.m. | Posted: 9:33 a.m.

A contractor was in the process of moving a natural gas meter inside Minnehaha Academy prior to Wednesday's explosion, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Thursday.

Christopher Hart, an NTSB Board member, identified the company as Master Mechanical. Hart told reporters that the NTSB has also heard concerns about where exactly the workers attempted to turn off the gas prior to working on the meter and that inquires would begin Friday.

The NTSB investigation is expected to take about a year, he said, adding that the agency would not speculate on what led up to the blast.

He also asked for anyone who might have information, pictures or video connected to the blast to come forward

He said the NTSB has probed some 20 natural gas building explosions the past five years and the school scene "probably falls somewhere in the middle" in terms of the damage and complexity, but he added that "all of them are tragic."

Hart and his NTSB team arrived in Minneapolis Thursday to begin the painstaking task of determining what caused the explosion that caused part of a school building to collapse, killing two people and injuring at least nine others, including one critically.

The bodies of longtime school receptionist Ruth Berg and custodian John Carlson were found in the rubble.

City fire officials said the collapse was caused by a natural gas explosion in a utility area. Contractors were working in the school at the time, and some witnesses said they were warned of a gas leak moments before the blast. Some first responders also reported smelling natural gas as they pulled people to safety.

Master Mechanical was issued a permit on June 7 for "gas piping and hooking up meter" at the school, according to city records. The permit did not include details on the type of work involved. Master Mechanical said in a statement that its employees were among the injured.

Mark Farley, a Houston-based attorney who specializes in major accident response, said investigators are going to be honing in on the cause of the blast. He said that includes examining physical evidence and interviewing potential witnesses.

Questions will include what type of work was being done, whether the building should have been occupied at the time, if all precautions were taken to make sure it was done safely, and whether the contractors should have isolated the natural gas source before proceeding, Farley said.

"The investigators at this point are going to try to determine what the root cause of the incident was," he said.

He said at this point, it's premature to say whether the building should have been cleared beforehand. He said the limited information on the permit suggests the contractors were working directly on the gas lines.

"The question is going to be, was it isolated in a way that they were confident they could do the work without the risk of a leak," he said. "Obviously something went terribly wrong."

Tim Fetterly, a Minnesota attorney experienced in cases stemming from fires and explosions, said the investigation will likely take months. The process can be accelerated if a witness knows exactly what went wrong, but investigators still need to look at all of the physical evidence.

He said investigators will likely remove all the gas components from the scene and conduct lab tests.

Fetterly said gas is meant to be transmitted in a closed system, and finding the source of the leak will be key. He said an ignition source is usually not paramount in a case like this because anything from a light switch to a pilot light could create enough of an arc to ignite the released gas.

"Oftentimes because there are so many possibilities like that ... the exact ignition source is often not something they are able to determine," he said.

Master Mechanical has been cited for workplace violations twice in recent years. Jenny O'Brien, a spokeswoman for Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said in 2010 the company was fined for a violation related to protecting an employee from falling. In 2014, the company had two paperwork violations related to letting employees know about job hazards.

O'Brien said Minnesota OSHA also had investigators at the site Thursday and would be looking into employee safety and training regulations.

Three people remained hospitalized Thursday, including an assistant soccer coach who was in critical but stable condition, according to Hennepin County Medical Center. Bryan Duffey's family released a statement Thursday saying he has traumatic injuries that will require more surgery.

Six other patients who were brought to the hospital after Wednesday's blast have been released.

Minnehaha Academy is a private, Christian school that serves students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grades. The explosion affected only the "upper school," which houses the high school. The lower and middle school campus is about a mile and a half away.

Aerial video footage of the blast site showed part of a building was ripped apart, with wood splintered and bricks scattered about. Windows in other areas were blown out and shattered.