PSE&G SUED OVER BUILDING EXPLOSION

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

By KIBRET MARKOS
STAFF WRITER

The first of an anticipated series of lawsuits was filed Tuesday against Public Service Electric and Gas Co. and a Montclair construction company in connection with a gas explosion that tore through a Bergenfield apartment building last week, killing three people.

Kathleen Moat, who was blown out of her apartment and found herself buried beneath rubble a floor below, says utility workers didn't properly mark the areas where pipelines existed.

In papers filed in state Superior Court in Hackensack, Moat, 39, says workers from American Tank Service of Montclair were negligent when they began digging Dec. 13 to remove an underground oil tank at the Elm Street building.

Police records show that technicians from PSE&G were notified immediately after the workers damaged a gas pipe. Although records show they arrived at the scene 27 minutes later, Moat says that was too late: The building exploded within five minutes, killing three people and injuring five, one critically.

"This is a tragedy of enormous proportions, caused by the negligence of many who will be responsible to pay enormous damages," said attorney Rosemarie Arnold, who is representing Moat.

PSE&G spokeswoman Jennifer Connell said the company properly marked the pipelines and responded to the scene in a timely manner once it received a call.

"The marking was performed a day before the accident, and the gas line was clearly identified," she said.

Alan Marcus, spokesman for American Tank Service, said the company on Tuesday was still reviewing what occurred Dec. 13. He declined to comment further.

Still bearing scars on her face, head and arm, Moat recalled how she was in bed that morning - playing with her cat and watching TV one minute, then crawling out of debris and stumbling out of the building the next.

"I saw everything rock for a second," she said. "That's when the roof fell down and cracked me in the head, and kept hitting me and hitting me and hitting me."

Once she found her way out of the rubble, Moat, said, she realized she had fallen into her second-floor neighbor's living room.

"Down the hall, it was a surreal sight of smoke and dust," she said. "And this horrible smell, which I later learned was gas."

Dazed and bloodied, she ran out of the building in her bare feet after someone yelled that it was about to blow up, she said. She called out for her cat, Tigger, which she said has since been missing.

Moat was taken to Hackensack University Medical Center, where she received 80 stitches. She was released two days later.

Arnold said she has hired Peter Vallas, a fire expert from Hackensack, to investigate the explosion. That will include a complete reconstruction of the incident and a lab examination of items that could have been a factor, Vallas said.

"It could take months to determine what the problem was," Vallas said.

The National Transportation Safety Board was still investigating the explosion and could release a report by next week, said spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz. The NTSB investigates pipeline explosions that are considered the most serious or that might involve problems with national repercussions.

E-mail: markos@northjersey.com

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