Police and DTE Energy officials are investigating a house explosion that occurred in the 20000 block of Lennon Street in Harper Woods Sept. 21. Investigators believe an attempted furnace theft caused a gas leak.

Police and DTE Energy officials are investigating a house explosion that occurred in the 20000 block of Lennon Street in Harper Woods Sept. 21. Investigators believe an attempted furnace theft caused a gas leak.

Photo provided by the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety

Harper Woods house explosion inquiry points to attempted furnace theft

Break-in, gas leak found at another for-sale home

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published September 27, 2018

HARPER WOODS — The city of Harper Woods was rattled by the sound of a large blast Sept. 21 due to an explosion at a local home.

Detectives from the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety are investigating the incident, which occurred at approximately 10:30 a.m. at a house in the 20800 block of Lennon Street.

Police arrived to find the house “completely leveled.” They observed two people on the ground in front of the home and immediately began to administer aid to them. 

At the time of the explosion, the house was being renovated and put up for sale. Michigan State Police and Harper Woods investigators determined that the blast was caused by would-be thieves breaking into the home and attempting to remove the furnace. Two appraisers who were going to look at the house Sept. 21 opened the front door and set off the explosion.

“Somebody broke in and attempted to steal the furnace and disconnected it from the gas lines. Gas was then leaking into the house,” said Harper Woods Department of Public Safety Chief James Burke. “Gas itself won’t explode, so either the pilot light from the heater or a spark from the door being opened, combined with the air being let in, caused the explosion.”

Both appraisers, ages 66 and 33, were listed in critical condition but were later released from the hospital. A third victim, a 36-year-old neighbor, also was injured. The neighbor was released from medical care the same day as the explosion.

Police took charge of the scene and ensured that no others were in danger.

“We evacuated about 20 businesses and 50 houses near the scene,” Burke said. “(There were) only four houses we (kept people out of longer) just to be safe, but everyone else was allowed to return home.”

Investigators are now looking for the thieves who broke into the house and caused the gas leak.

“We are now conducting a criminal investigation to try and determine who did it,” said Burke. “They’ll be looking at some serious charges because of the injuries.”

The natural gas for the home is serviced by DTE Energy. The company sent a team to investigate the site and work with investigators. The company stated that there were no leak reports from the neighborhood before the incident. Power and gas to the 10 houses surrounding the site of the explosion were shut off. DTE Energy official John Fossen said power and gas service was returned to the area during the evening of Sept. 21.

“After the incident, DTE’s investigators surveyed the area and found no leaks. DTE pressure tested the existing gas lines and found no leaks. Both the main and service lines were confirmed to be operating properly and within specified pressure,” DTE stated in a press release. “In addition, DTE has confirmed there was minimal gas consumption at the home prior to midnight yesterday, as would be expected at a home vacant and for sale. After midnight, however, the house meter measured an abnormally large natural gas spike into the home.”  

“We are supporting the authorities’ ongoing investigation into the incident. Again, our immediate thoughts go out to those who were injured today,” DTE stated in the press release. “Customer safety is our No. 1 priority at DTE. We maintain the safety and integrity of our system of underground natural gas pipes through a robust program of inspections, maintenance and upgrades.”

The press release also advised customers who suspect a gas leak to leave the area at once, go to a location outside of the house or building where they no longer smell gas, and to then call (800) 947-5000 immediately to report the situation.

On Sept. 26, Harper Woods officers and DTE officials were alerted to a nearby home in the 18900 block of Woodside Street. There, they found a similar set of circumstances: a house up for sale, signs of a break-in, missing heating equipment and a gas leak. Burke said that this situation was found before anyone was hurt.

“A Realtor was walking around the other house, smelled gas and called the police and DTE. They went in and discovered a window broken and the water heater and furnace taken. We are investigating that also,” he said. “We don’t know if this is the same people, but obviously we are taking this very seriously. … If you smell gas at all, please call DTE immediately.”

Burke expressed his relief that there were no fatalities, as well as his concern that there could be thieves in the community putting more people at risk.

“We had so many calls coming in to 911 after the explosion. It’s a terrible situation, but we are thankful it wasn’t worse,” said Burke. “I don’t want to think about how many people could have been hurt if this happened while kids were going to school in the morning. … (The victims) were upgraded to stable and were released from the hospital. We are praying for their recovery and glad this wasn’t a hell of a lot worse.”