A car exploded Friday afternoon when a woman backed out of her garage and ran over the gas meter a few feet off her driveway. The car fire at 1505 Legend Oaks continued for several hours as fire, police and gas crews worked to get the gas line turned off before the fire could be put out.
Helen Eastman, owner of the house and vehicle, died in the explosion. According to police, a witness saw the accident and tried to help Eastman, but the car was engulfed in flames and the witness could not get close enough to the vehicle.
Neighbor Kathy Windham said she heard a loud banging on the door around 1:30 p.m. When she opened the door, she said a man was there and shouting that a woman needed help, that she was trapped in a car. Then Windham saw the flames.
“They were 50 feet in the air and we couldn't get close to the car,” Windham said. “I couldn't believe it, I've never seen anything like it.”
A neighbor said the 58-year-old Eastman was from New York originally, did not have much experience driving, roughly eight months. Her daughter, who has special needs, was asleep inside the house when the accident occurred.
The quickness of the explosion has caused some neighbors in the Cedar Park Town Center to warily eye their gas meters and how close they are to the street or driveway. Throughout the neighborhood, the distance from the gas meters to driveways varies from house to house, with the closest meter roughly four feet from the driveway with grass between the two and the furthest is roughly 12 feet from the driver.
“I definitely think there is cause for concern,” Windham said. The Windhams live on the corner lot and although their gas meter is not near the driveway, Kathy and Mark said they worry about someone taking a turn too fast and running over their meter on the corner.
“I think it would be a good idea to put concrete-filled posts around all utilities,” Mark said. “It could have easily been prevented.”
Other neighbors aren't so sure. Next-door neighbor Robert Fulcher said he doesn't see how the developer, city or gas company can be blamed for an obvious accident.
“This is not the first subdivision to have utilities placed like this and it's very unfortunate, but I don't see how blame can be placed on D.R. Horton, and blame won't bring Helen back,” Fulcher said. “We need to wait and let cooler heads prevail. I'm as concerned as anybody, but I don't think anything can be accomplished by standing on my porch and asking who is to blame.
Doug Hill, manager of public affairs for Atmos Energy, said he did not believe the proximity of the gas meters to the homes was a bad design. The placement of gas meters, he said, is decided by the developer, the builder and city planners.
When asked if this type of accident has occurred before, Hill said “From time to time, people do hit gas meters with outside forces.”
Another complaint of some neighbors, including Wind-ham, is the time it took for the gas to be shut off and the fire to be extinguished. Firefighters were forced to let the car burn with the body inside for more than two hours due to a gas leak while the Atmos crew worked to dig up a nearby gas main and crimp the pipe to stop the gas flow to the broken meter.
Firefighters continuously sprayed nearby homes with water to keep them from catching fire from the car flames and heat radiating from the wreckage. Hill said Atmos was contacted about the accident at 2:05 p.m., the company's first responder arrived at 2:35 p.m. and the crew arrived at 2:50 p.m.
The gas was shut off at 3:45 p.m., which Windham said was too long and said the neighborhood needs some kind of gas shut off close by.
Hill said there are always opportunities to put in additional valves, but said Atmos cannot predict where accidents will occur.
“The concern that we have is if we had another isolation valve where accident occurred, you would have the same thing,” Hill said. “The placement of valves does not necessarily prevent accidents from happening. Obviously our thoughts and prayers go out to this family.”
Police released the name of the victim Tuesday morning, after Justice of the Peace Edna Staudt determined an autopsy was not required to identify the victim.
During the accident, the city evacuated roughly 12 homes around the gas leak as a precautionary measure.
Cedar Park Fire Department Battalion Chief Randle Blesing and his crew responded to the fire. Blesing said the fire from the car was burning up the gas, which was why they could not put out the flames, but said there were no toxic fumes in the air.
“There's not a whole lot of danger from the gas but it's safer to let the gas continue to burn off and that's why we didn't put out the fire right away,” Blesing said. “We're just taking precautions to make sure nothing else happens.”
Calls to D.R. Horton were not returned in time for the press deadline. Friday, D.R. Horton released a statement, which read, “We are extremely saddened by today's tragic accident. Our hearts go out to the family, and they are in our thoughts and prayers. We are assisting the families in this community that are temporarily without utilities.”
Most of the residents who were evacuated were permitted to return at 6 p.m. Friday. All repairs were completed by 10:30 p.m. Friday.
Contact Tamra Spence at 259-4449 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.