(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
After nearly two years, a Hyde Park couple’s hopes of recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars lost due to an accident could come down to a few lines of spray paint.
Michael Burns and Bob Houser lost their home at 17 Reynold Road in Readville on Nov. 3, 2010, when a natural gas line was severed during roadwork, causing the home to explode. Since then, they’ve been renting an apartment in Dedham and putting their lives back together, waiting for a day they might see financial restitution.
For many months, Houser and Burns awaited a hearing at the state Department of Public Utilities that would examine whether DeFelice Corp., the contractor doing the excavation, was at fault. When that hearing finally came on Sept. 6, it was clear that DeFelice’s potential liability would rest on whether DPU commissioners believe the contractor properly marked the area of road to be dug up.
DeFelice was hired by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission to replace water, sewer, and drainage lines at more than a dozen locations around Boston. Those sites included the length of Reynold Road in Readville, from Chesterfield Street at its northern edge to Como Road in the south, including its intersection with Danny Road, where Burns and Houser’s home stood.
Among DeFelice’s first responsibilities in the excavation were pre-marking the area to be excavated with spray paint and calling Dig Safe, the free service that notifies utility companies to mark the placement of gas, water, and electric lines before digging begins.
George DeFelice, owner of the company, and three of his workers testified that DeFelice had himself pre-marked the area and they had observed proper safety precautions. But staff members from the DPU’s Pipeline Engineering and Safety Division said they saw no evidence of paint marking the excavation area.
Robert Hayden, a compliance officer for the pipeline division, said he saw no markings for the excavation nor any indicating the gas line that DeFelice workers hit during excavation. He said on the morning of the explosion that he asked both DeFelice and his project manager to show him where the work site was pre-marked with paint but neither could do so.
“I looked for pre-marks. I asked about pre-marks. I asked to be directed to pre-marks. Nobody ever showed me any pre-marks,” Hayden testified during the hearing.
But DeFelice said he had personally pre-marked the excavation area and would never put his workers into danger by putting them to work on an excavation project that wasn’t properly marked. His attorney suggested there were no pre-marked lines visible by Nov. 3, 2010, because the work was nearly completed and the lines marking the area to be excavated had been obliterated by the excavation.
DeFelice workers said that three times during their excavation they uncovered unmarked NStar gas lines. But when they asked NStar to mark the placement of the lines on the pavement, the workers said, NStar employees told them the markings were unnecessary because they had already found the gas lines.
The day before the explosion, a DeFelice project manager put in a second call to Dig Safe requesting new markings for the utility lines.
The DPU hearing officer set deadlines of Sept. 20 for initial briefs from attorneys and Oct. 4 for reply briefs, but neither she nor a department spokeswoman could say when a decision is likely to be announced.
Even then, Houser and Burns won’t benefit directly. But if the DPU finds DeFelice at fault, Houser said, it will create an easier path for them to seek a financial settlement from the contractor to repay the massive expenses of demolition, relocation, and creating a new home.
“We at least want to be able to recover what we lost, which is a lot,” Houser said.
Houser said he and Burns had refinanced the home in the mid-2000s, while the real estate market was still near its peak, but were forced out when it was near the bottom, and all determinations of its value are now based on Nov. 2010. The insurer carrying their homeowners’ policy offered a settlement that is less than the remaining mortgage on the property.
Houser said he and Burns had accepted the insurer’s offer on the contents of the home, but they refused to cash the check for the dwelling itself. Now they will try to prove that the insurer undervalued the home, though Houser said that’s a battle they will probably lose.
Houser, who works in the pharmaceutical industry and frequently travels to visit clients, said he had flown home from Switzerland and Argentina for previously scheduled hearings that were cancelled at the last minute.
Despite his frustration, he remains thankful that the accident only damaged property.
“It’s really a miracle none of those guys were killed,” he said, gesturing the DeFelice employees. “That would have been a true tragedy.”
Outside the hearing room, George DeFelice said the explosion showed there are problems with the Dig Safe system that no one is willing to address. He said his company operates safely.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to us in 27 years of business, because of precautions we take,” DeFelice said.