The family of a 79-year-old great-grandmother killed in a house blast triggered by a “decades-old” faulty copper gas pipe have praised “brave” rescuers who tried to save her.
An inquest jury concluded on Tuesday the death of retired pub landlady Doreen Mace, originally from Erdington, Birmingham, was accidental.
She died at a house owned by her partner, David Murphy, in Dulwich Road, Kingstanding, Birmingham, on Sunday June 26 last year, in a blast that caused what the coroner described as a “Hollywood film-esque level of destruction”.
At the start of the hearing, the inquest’s 11-member jury was shown an image of a “gas pipe separation under (the) floor of (the) living room”, which was at the root of the explosion.
It also emerged Mr Murphy had rung UK gas distribution network Cadent at 8.22pm that Sunday, reporting he could smell “what he thought was gas”, his hob was no longer working, and the meter was “making a noise”.
He was told by a call handler “not to use any source of ignition, and to ventilate the house”, and that an engineer would arrive “within the hour”, the coroner said.
Less than 15 minutes after the call ended, the house exploded.
Numerous 999 calls were made – the first at 8.38pm – by neighbours, who described a “huge bang” and said 129 Dulwich Road had been “flattened” and was “completely missing”.
The blast was so violent that it sent roof tiles through the windows of a leisure centre 114ft (35m) away, and, while initially there was only a small fire, it grew so that searches for Ms Mace had to be called off for safety reasons.
The body of Ms Mace, of Elmwood Road, Erdington, was later recovered under 3ft (1m) of rubble from the lounge at the front of the property.
Her partner, Mr Murphy – though suffering “relatively significant injuries” – survived, having earlier been rescued from the rubble of the kitchen – where he had been shielded by a fridge – by members of the public, who carried him away using a mattress.
Speaking on behalf of the family, after the hearing, one of Ms Mace’s great grandchildren, 25-year-old Bradley O’Brien paid tribute, calling her “similar to Catherine Tate” and a woman “never scared to speak her mind”, who “dedicated her whole life to her family”.
Echoing comments from the coroner, he also praised “very brave” members of the public and neighbours who – heedless of the risk to themselves – rushed to dig Mr Murphy out of the rubble, and had tried to find and save Ms Mace before flames beat them back.
To those rescuers, Mr O’Brien said: “Thank you.
“My heart goes out to you, and the world needs more people like that, actually willing to sacrifice their life for someone else.
“(They are) very brave people, especially as we heard in the inquest that there was still gas coming out of the house, whilst there was people still trying to pull Dave and my nan out of the rubble.”
Mr O’Brien also called for gas firms to look again at the standard advice transcript read to residents who call reporting the smell of gas, which does not automatically urge them to leave a property.
“I think going forward I want my nan’s death to change these transcripts and the advice given to people in these situations,” he said.
Earlier, during the inquest’s opening, the coroner said “many years ago – potentially decades”, whomever had installed the gas pipe had used a type of fitting which needed “soldering”, but had not done so.
“So, at that joint, it was never soldered or welded and, sadly, we reach a point where natural gas is escaping into the property. It eventually ignites, causing the explosion.
“It appears Doreen, sadly, was in the lounge at the point of the explosion.”
The coroner also heard the floorboards in the bay area of the lounge were “bowing” because some of the joists were “rotting”. However, the jury later heard the boards were not directly above the joint.
Jurors, who delivered their conclusions after deliberating for just under two hours on Tuesday, found Ms Mace’s cause of death was from “consequences of an explosion that caused a house to collapse”.
Delivering a brief record of what happened, and a conclusion of accidental death, jurors concluded the circumstances were as a result of “a gas explosion at 129 Dulwich Road on June 26 2022, at around 8.38pm, which caused a house to collapse onto the deceased, who was in the lounge area”.
The ex-Birmingham City Council house was nearly 100 years old, with the home – privately owned in 1981 – about to be sold.
Police tried to trace a history of gas works at the house, but were told “no-one holds records that far back”.
Mr Bennett said the “best estimate” was that the pipe “had been there at least 50 years”.
The inquest later heard from Steve Critchlow, specialist Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector, who said the pipework was probably post-Second World War, dating to the 1950s or 1960s.
He said the likelihood was the unsoldered joint had been “leaking small amounts of gas” for many years, but there had been a total failure – for reasons he would only be guessing at – on June 26.