Death of grandmother, 79, in fatal gas blast was accidental, inquest jury finds

The death of a 79-year-old great-grandmother killed in a house blast triggered by a “decades-old” faulty copper gas pipe join was accidental, an inquest jury has concluded.

Retired pub landlady Doreen Mace, originally from Erdington, Birmingham, was described by her relatives during the two-day inquest as a “once-in-a-lifetime soul”.

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.

Kingstanding explosion
Emergency services at the scene in Dulwich Road, Kingstanding (Richard Vernalls/PA)

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.

Mr Murphy was not called as a witness to give evidence at the inquest by the coroner, who said it was “not necessary”.

James Bennett, Birmingham and Solihull area coroner, said: “He indicated to police his recollection was poor, he was seriously injured, I don’t think it would be appropriate to put him through the stress of recalling in events in public.”

The wreckage of the house and three other neighbouring properties, found to be structurally unsound, were later demolished.

Opening the hearing, the coroner told the inquest “many years ago – potentially decades”, whoever 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”.

Kingstanding explosion
A car which was damaged in the blast (Richard Vernalls/PA)

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.

Mrs O’Brien read out a pen portrait of her grandmother, calling her “a caring, energetic and fun-loving lady with such an infectious smile”, who was “devoted to her family”.

“At time of her passing, Nan was 79 years young, still with a determination, vigour for life, on par with a person half her age,” she said.

She added her grandmother had been planning a holiday with her partner, and said: “She was and always will be our matriarch and a once-in-a-lifetime soul we are grateful to have known.”