Nearly two years after a corroded gas main exploded in South Philadelphia, leading to the collapse of five rowhouses and killing two people, the family of a young man who died has filed a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Gas Works, and the contractors whose construction work on the block allegedly triggered the devastation.
Brian Diu, 28, died on a frigid December morning in 2019, after a crack in a 92-year-old cast-iron gas main exploded on the 1400 block of South Eighth Street, leveling his family’s home and igniting a large fire. Now, his younger sister, Connie Diu, hopes the suit will hold the city accountable for what her family feels was a failure to fix a long-known danger, and inform the public of where leaky at-risk gas mains are located.
In an interview, Connie Diu, 26, said that while her family has suffered daily since the explosion, they feel the city quickly moved on without addressing the underlying problem.
“It can’t just be one pipe in the city,” she said.
The lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas on Thursday by the Center City law firm Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, argues that the city and PGW, long aware of the hazards of the deteriorating gas lines, were negligent in maintaining and replacing them.
“The accident, explosion, and Brian Diu’s death were proximately caused by the City of Philadelphia and PGW’s negligent, reckless, and grossly negligent maintenance of the subject pipeline,” the lawsuit says.
The city declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
PGW extended its condolences to the families and said in a statement that its “priority and most important responsibility is protecting the safety of our customers, employees, communities, stakeholders and ensuring safety throughout all of our operations.”
PGW declined to comment on specifics of the suit but said it invests $85 million annually into its infrastructure.
“PGW regularly monitors, inspects and maintains our system and administers leak response 24/7,” the utility company said. “We investigate every odor call we receive and conduct maintenance, whenever needed.” The utility said it hadn’t received calls about gas odors or had street-opening work in the area prior to the explosion.
Joseph Emanuel of Bart Emanuel & Son Plumbing and Heating LLC, one of the contractors named, said in an email that “numerous independent investigations ... have confirmed that we were not liable nor a contributing factor in this incident.”
Cast-iron pipes are vulnerable to corrosion and grow brittle with age due to “graphitization.” Just under half of PGW’s 3,000 miles of gas mains are still made of the “high risk” cast iron, and while the city and PGW know where these gas mains are located, the public does not.
In May 1979, seven people were killed and 19 injured after a gas main in Northeast Philadelphia exploded. Six years later, another explosion killed three in West Kensington, and in 2011, a young PGW worker died after a leaky main exploded in Tacony.
In the case of the six-inch main under South Eighth Street, nearly three-quarters of its walls had corroded, according to the lawsuit, making it highly susceptible to a crack or fracture. The lawsuit calls it “a ticking time bomb.”
On Dec. 19, 2019, that “time bomb” went off.
Connie Diu was in the kitchen of the home she shared with her two brothers and parents when the house began to shake, the glass shattered, and walls caved in. She ran out the back door, but her brother Brian didn’t make it out before the structure collapsed and went up in flames. His body was recovered the following days.
Rudi Kambong, 65, who was bedridden, also died when his adjacent rowhouse crumbled.
Connie Diu said family members have tried to put their lives back together. They moved to the Northeast.
“We really want the public to know that this is a real issue, this is a very scary issue, and this could happen to anyone. Even till today, I am still traumatized,” she said.
Only one utility in the nation has a higher percentage of “high-risk” mains, according to federal data, and the Pennsylvania Utility Commission has pressured PGW to accelerate its replacement schedule.
“Certainly Connie Diu and her family expect appropriate compensation,” said lawyer Steve Wigrizer of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, “but we really want the public to understand the scope of the problem. We want PGW to make full disclosure of the locations of the gas lines most at risk.”
The lawsuit also names the Philadelphia Facilities Management Corporation, which oversees PGW. It says the city and utility company had the resources to replace these mains faster. Wigrizer said they plan to look at PGW’s finances to determine how funds are being used and whether the agency can afford to replace the mains faster.
» READ MORE: PUC plans to pressure city to replace aging pipes
The lawsuit also names the companies Bart Emanuel & Son Plumbing and Heating LLC and Lepore Plumbing Inc., who were hired by two homeowners to perform plumbing and excavation work on the street beginning in October 2019.
Lepore Plumbing could not be reached Thursday.
The lawsuit alleges that the companies failed to properly survey and inspect the land, didn’t identify the location of the gas main, and failed to alert the city about their work. It alleges that their work “caused the ground in and around the subject pipeline to put undue pressure upon the subject pipeline, causing it to crack, leak, and explode.”
Wigrizer said sovereign immunity would likely apply to the city, which caps legal payouts at $500,000. .
Wigrizer’s firm also represented the families of the seven people who died, and 12 injured, in 2013 after a Salvation Army building collapsed in Center City. The case settled for $227 million, one of the largest personal injury settlements in Pennsylvania history.