MIDDLETOWN ——Perhaps the legacy of the deadly explosion at the Kleen Energy power plant one year ago today can best be understood through the prism of the host city – a community that will draw an anxious breath when the rebuilt, $1 billion plant flips the switch and opens for business in April.
"We're a more cautious community now,'' Mayor Sebastian Giuliano said. "We're more aware of the razor thin margin between doing things right and total disaster. We know now what our emergency response to a worst-case scenario has to be. And we appreciate the danger of this calling.''
The explosion killed six workers and injured as many as 50 others late in the morning of Feb. 7, 2010, a Super Bowl Sunday.
The tragedy devastated the families of the dead and seriously injured, and left many of the workers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. It spawned a string of lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages — cases that may be heading to a mediation effort on the scale of the priest-abuse scandals and the L'Ambiance Plaza collapse in Bridgeport, which killed 28 people in April 1987. The 44 L'Ambiance cases were grouped and settled for $43 million.
The blast, fueled by natural gas, led to the banning in September of "gas blows'' — the inherently dangerous process of forcing natural gas through pipes at tremendous pressure to clean the lines. The explosion also led federal regulators to cite contractors for more than 100 safety violations and levy over $16 million in fines, and it renewed a call in Congress to ban gas blows and toughen fuel and gas codes nationwide.
State police detectives and troopers from the state fire marshal's office finished their criminal investigation of the blast in December and turned over a report to Middlesex State's Attorney Timothy Liston for review. Sources familiar with the report said that despite an extensive investigation, no arrests are expected and the source of the explosion wasn't pinpointed.
Sources said there were several possible ignition sources that could not be discounted, from a portable ground heater in the courtyard where the gas was dispersed, to possible sparks from metal materials being blown out of the pipes, to static electricity from cellphones.
Liston said Friday, however, that the criminal probe of the explosion is continuing.
James "Skip'' Thomas, a longtime emergency-management official who is now acting commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, led one of two state commissions that studied the blast. The panels issued recommendations, some of which became conditions of Kleen Energy's new operating license. The plant is scheduled to open April 8.
Thomas said Friday that the ban on gas blows was a major development in a quest for safer industrial construction projects, as was a provision that local fire and public-safety officials be involved in the planning and carrying out of large-scale testing operations at power-plant sites.
The explosion, heard and felt in a radius of 30 miles or more, also unleashed an outpouring of generosity in Middletown, the rest of Connecticut and beyond. The memorial services and fundraising events touched the families of the dead.
"Our family is grateful for all the support from so many people over the last year,'' said Erik Dobratz, son of pipefitter Raymond Dobratz, 58, of Old Saybrook, who was a well-known youth sports coach in town, "We lost a husband, father, grandfather and friend, but if anything comes from this tragedy we hope it will be improved safety on construction sites where so many men and women work so hard every day."
Also killed were Peter Chepulis, 48, of Thomaston; Ronald J. Crabb, 42, of Colchester; Chris Walters, 48, of Florissant, Mo.; Roy Rushton, 36, of Hamilton, Ontario; and Kenneth Haskell, 37, of New Durham, N.H.
The location of the workers inside the power building determined who lived and who died. There were at least 50 workers inside the structure during the gas blows, but only 15 were directly involved in the process, investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board would conclude.
Enough gas built up in that courtyard, investigators would say later, to power a Connecticut home every day for 25 years. The plant was 95 percent finished and was set to open in May or June 2010, at least five months ahead of schedule.
Giuliano recalled how the scarred and rocky former feldspar mine overlooking the Connecticut river crawled with union workers as the sprawling plant took shape. As many as 800 people worked at the site in the months and days before the explosion — a time when skilled construction jobs were scarce.
In the wake of the blast, "The construction crews wanted to get back to work; they wanted to see this project completed,'' the mayor said. "They did not want their brothers to have died in vain.''