The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will hold a four-day inquiry in San Juan in early June as part of its ongoing investigation into the fatal explosion that took 33 lives last year.
The inquiry begins at 9 a.m., Monday, June 2 and runs through Thursday, June 5. It will focus on numerous safety issues raised by the explosion and will be chaired by NTSB Board Member John Hammerschmidt. It will be held in the ballroom of the Embassy Suites Hotel, 8000 Tartak St., Carolina, Puerto Rico.
"The NTSB will endeavor to find out why this tragedy happened and do our best to make sure it does not happen again," said Hammerschmidt, a 12-year veteran of the Safety Board. "As the investigation progressed, we were disturbed to find that many people did not understand the dangers of gas, did not know the potential danger when they smelled leaking gas and did not report it to emergency authorities or the gas company."
On November 21, 1996, an explosion occurred in the Humberto Vidal shoe store and office building in San Juan, killing 33 people. A six-story building was destroyed and nearby buildings were destroyed or damaged.
After an NTSB "go team" arrived on the scene, investigators tested the subsurface in the vicinity of the destroyed and damaged buildings. Laboratory analyses confirmed the presence of propane, a heavier-than-air gas, in the subsurface of three locations.
When the Safety Board excavated pipes at the suspected leak locations, it found a damaged and leaking plastic gas line beneath Calle Camelia Soto and a damaged and leaking steel gas service line beneath Calle Arzuaga. These two streets are immediately west and south of the Humberto Vidal building.
Hammerschmidt said the inquiry will focus on several issues, including the adequacy of:
Excavation damage prevention efforts.
Public education about the potential dangers of propane gas releases and appropriate responses.
San Juan Gas Company's response to leak notifications.
San Juan Gas Company's employee training, maintenance and operating practices.
Enron Corporation's support of San Juan Gas Company operations. Enron, based in Houston, owns San Juan Gas.
Puerto Rico Public Service Commission enforcement of pipeline safety regulations.
US Department of Transportation Office of Pipeline Safety oversight of the Puerto Rico Public Service Commission's safety program.
The parties, which are currently assisting in the investigation, are: the federal DOT Office of Pipeline Safety; the government of Puerto Rico; Humberto Vidal, Inc.; Dupont, Inc.; the contracting firm of Bermudez & Longo; and San Juan Gas Company.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency that recently marked its 30th anniversary. It has been directed by Congress to determine the probable cause of transportation accidents and to make recommendations to improve safety.
The NTSB's findings, contained in a published report, will be adopted at a public meeting several months after the June public hearing. The Safety Board issued a series of safety recommendations in February as a result of its ongoing investigation and may issue additional recommendations before its final report.