The blast, just a sparkaway!

The blast, just a sparkaway!

The blast, just a sparkaway!

Kamakshipalya, April 1, 7.45 am: His wife still asleep, Kantharaju had walked into the kitchen for a quick cup of coffee. He lit the LPG stove and placed a kettle of water to boil. But finding no milk in the house, he rushed out in a hurry.

The gas was not turned off…

That momentary lapse turned fatal. In those ten minutes before his return, the gas had leaked to dangerous levels.

That tragic, microsecond when he lit the stove, the suspended gas exploded with deafening ferocity. Killing him instantly and critically wounding his sleeping wife, the blast devastated the house and shook the neighbourhood.

Barely 30, Kantharaju shouldn’t have died. His wife needn’t have been disfigured, her seven-month old married life shattered so tragically. A little caution could have saved this couple and a hundred others killed or wounded in 109 domestic LPG-related blasts across Bangalore this year.

The accident statistics is chilling. In 2013 alone, the State Fire and Emergency Services department had attended 1,545 fire calls from the city, 216 of them linked to LPG blasts.

Many of them were fatal. A year before, 260 such explosions had triggered death and destruction in neighbourhoods galore. Sadly, none of these were unavoidable. Precautions, simple and cheap, could have saved lives and property.

For, in a city with vast areas of extreme congestion, quick arrival of fire tenders could get tough, multiplying casualties and damages. 
Explosive spread

Highly combustible, Liquefied Petroleum Gas demands caution of a high level. As BK Hamppagol, former deputy director (technical), Fire and emergency services, explains, LPG has an expansion ratio of 200.

Simply put, 10g of the gas can expand 200 times in volume when mixed with normal air. “At this rate, the impact of a gas explosion will be extremely high. The internal pressure within would have built up 200-fold and in no time.”

The devastation is of very high proportions and quick. Says the former fire department official, “Automatically, everything in the confined space get damaged. If controlled fast, the cylinder itself may not burst unless it is within the fire for a longer period. But the gas, released due to an unchecked leakage will explore at the slightest spark.”

His long years in the field had exposed Hamppagol to myriad mistakes that consumers commit in the kitchen, aiding avoidable accidents.

“Working women try to finish their cooking job in a hurry, sometimes forgetting basic precautions. The regulator may not be fitted well or the rubber tube connecting the regulator to the stove may not be periodically changed.”

Risk factors

Frequent bends on the tube could also cause cracks and weak areas, from where the gas can leak. Foodstuff could fall on these pipes, and if not cleaned, rats and cockroaches feed on them. “Cockroaches are even known to nibble on rubber, causing weak points and reducing the tube’s circumference,” points out a fire expert.

By oversight, if the main regulator or the stove itself is not turned off and a strong wind extinguishes the flames, the gas could leak continuously, unnoticed. “Since LPG is heavier than air, it hangs in at about one to 1.5 ft from the ground. You might not even smell it,” cautions the expert.

Since LPG use has long gone beyond middle classes and become common even in slums, extreme caution is advised in highly congested areas. Residents of Azadnagar, a thickly populated area, had paid a big price a few years ago.

Unaware that one of the cylinders he carried was leaking, a delivery boy had carried it to a house deep inside the area. The moment the consumer connected it and lit the stove, an explosion had sparked a fire so huge that it spread to the entire street. Eighteen children who were playing there suffered grievous burns.

Awareness matters

Safety awareness is then critical to avoid such eventualities. In the absence of such a structured programme, residents often find it tough to set right leaks. Panicked, they often end up doing all the wrong things. For, an explosion could be sudden, without giving them any time!

Help is hard to find at quick notice. Gas agencies, there are aplenty in the city. But their priority areas are sales and distribution, with maintenance and service aspects often taking a backseat. The delivery boys attached to these outlets are the consumers’ direct link with the agencies. But they seldom carry tools.

Fathima Begum, a Marathahalli resident, had experienced that lacuna. “I had a problem in the regulator. Despite calling the agency and delivery boy several times, they didn’t respond. Finally, I had to catch a local mechanic to sort it out,” she recalls.

However, a delivery agent, BG Manjunath says generalising is wrong. He claims he is always on call, and will reach a consumer’s house within ten minutes to attend to complaints related to leakages.

Fire safety experts suggest that the cylinder could be entirely shifted outside the house and connected by a longer pipe to the stove in the kitchen. The existing ones that are about 1.5 metres long could be replaced with 10-12 ft long pipes. This way, any leakage will get diluted in the air outside. The danger of blasts in confined areas could be largely avoided.

Confined areas

Most LPG gas blasts in the city have been in confined areas. One such explosion in September 2011 at a marriage choultry in Summanahalli was so intense that an entire portion housing the staircase had cracked and collapsed on another building.

Four were killed on the spot, with several others injured. The reasons were clear: Poor maintenance, use of substandard commercial cylinders in confined spaces and in general, a gross negligence about safety issues. 

Determined to arrest this dangerous slide, the fire department now has no choice but to gear up its fire prevention wing.

Conducting mock drills and spreading awareness in schools, communities and business establishments, the department hopes for a safety turnaround, as BL Sudhir, inspector general and additional director general of police, fire forces, puts it.

But they are faced with a mounting problem: A city defiantly spreading its unplanned growth tentacles, fuelling more congested areas and more inaccessibility to fire tenders. The next spark for a LPG blast might be hidden somewhere in a house deep within one such area. For the fire forces, a quick rescue job is always just round the corner!

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