A 79-year-old great-grandmother died in a “very significant” house explosion, thought to have been caused by a “decades-old” faulty copper gas pipe join, an inquest has heard.
Retired pub landlady Doreen Mace, originally from Erdington, Birmingham, was described by her relatives at the hearing on Monday 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”.
On Monday morning, the inquest’s 11-member jury was shown an image of a “gas pipe separation under (the) floor of (the) living room”, which is suspected of being at the heart of the explosion.
It emerged that Mr Murphy had rung UK gas distribution network Cadent at 8.22pm that Sunday, reporting that 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 protected by a fridge, by members of the public, who carried him away using a mattress.
Opening the hearing, Birmingham and Solihull Area Coroner James Bennett told the inquest: “Sadly, we reach a point where natural gas is escaping into the property. It eventually ignites, causing the explosion.”
It was confirmed by West Midlands Police Detective Inspector Ranj Sangha, in evidence, that multi-agency investigators agreed “the explosion was caused by natural gas escaping from a pipe underneath the lounge floor”.
The coroner also heard that the floorboards in the bay area of the lounge were “bowing” because some of the joists were “rotting”, according to a statement given to the police by Mr Murphy’s son.
“Is it right the area of floor was bowing was in reality above the gas pipe?” asked the coroner.
Mr Sangha replied: “Yes, in close proximity.”
The ex-Birmingham City Council house was nearly 100 years old, with the inquest hearing that the boiler was not working at the time of the blast.
Mr Murphy was selling the property – which had become privately owned in 1981 under a previous occupant – and had accepted an offer.
Estate agent particulars recorded the problem with the floor, accompanied by photos, and the lack of a working boiler.
Tracing the history of the pipework, Mr Sangha said police contacted Gas Safe, whose records only dated back to 2009, and also Birmingham Council, but officers were told “no-one holds records that far back”.
Summarising other evidence, Mr Bennett said the “best estimate” was that the pipe “had been there at least 50 years, but cannot exclude the possibility it was original pipework when the house was built in or before 1928”.
He told jurors “there was a very significant explosion, and the reality is the force of the explosion completely destroyed the house” and caused damage to neighbouring properties.
The coroner said that, “many years ago – potentially decades”, whomever 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.”
Jurors also heard from Mr Sangha that Mr Murphy, who was in the kitchen at the back of the house when the blast happened, was found in a void created by a falling fridge, which “seems to have provided him with some cover”.
One Ms Mace’s granddaughters, Samantha O’Brien, attended the inquest, along with other family members.
She asked the detective: “After your investigation, are you satisfied Mr Murphy did not know the extent of disrepair of the pipework?”
Mr Sangha replied: “We have nothing to suggest he knew the pipe underneath had not been soldered – there’s nothing to suggest he was aware of that fact.”
While an energy performance certificate (EPC) had been prepared for the sale of the house, there was no gas safety certificate – although it is not a legal requirement.
Earlier, Ms 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.”
Steve Critchlow, specialist Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector, 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.
He said: “It can’t have been leaking like that – and wouldn’t have been fully separated – before June 26.”
He added it was more likely the pipework dated from the 1950s or 1960s.
Mr Critchlow also said gas explosion deaths were “very rare” and averaged one per year, with more than 22 million domestic gas-fitted properties in the UK.
The inquest continues on Tuesday.