Propane tank in fatal blast lost telltale chemical, lawyer says

By Vivian Ho
Globe Correspondent / December 30, 2010

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A propane tank that exploded at a construction site in Norfolk last summer, killing an electrician, apparently lost the chemical odorant that is used to signal a leak of an odorless gas such as propane, a lawyer for the family of the victim said yesterday.

Lawyer Marc L. Breakstone said reports he received by state investigators indicated that the odorant, ethyl mercaptan, had probably dissipated from the tank in the months before the explosion.

He added that the State Police report pointed out that workers in the basement of the duplex reported feeling light-headed and nauseated before the explosion, but did not report smelling the “rotten eggs’’ scent associated with mercaptan.

The reports, by the state fire marshal and State Police, also appear to clear a Westfield-based distribution plant, DCP Midstream LLC. Investigators initially had questioned whether the gas DCP Midstream delivered to the Norfolk location did not contain the mercaptan.

William Nichols, 48, of Blackstone was part of a construction crew that had been working on the heating and air conditioning system of an unfinished duplex when the tank exploded July 30. Nichols was buried under burning debris for more than 90 minutes and died later that night.

Breakstone said the family will pursue action against EnergyUSA of Taunton, which installed the gas tank, and Smolinksy Brothers Plumbing and Heating Service, which installed the heating system at the duplex. Neither EnergyUSA nor Smolinksy could be reached for comment last night.

“This was a tragedy which could have been prevented if industry safety standards had been followed,’’ Breakstone said.

Vivian Ho can be reached at