News » Feature

What Lies Beneath

Laclede Gas and state regulators knew about corroding underground service lines for years and did little to fix the problem. Tom and Mary Hessel are among St. Louisans whove been burned as a result.


That Sunday began as a rare free day for Tom and Mary Hessel. Mary's recent job change required her to travel extensively during the week, giving the couple, married just 22 months, little time together. But on this particular Sunday, there would be no chores to finish, no bags to pack. Tom wasn't planning to play golf with his buddies; Mary wasn't going over to her mother's for an afternoon visit. Instead, they planned to spend the day together, attend church and look at the work Tom had done on his father's basement.

Tom and his siblings had been busy working on the family home at 6050 Pointview Ln., getting it ready to sell after his widowed father moved to a retirement home. Tom was anxious to show Mary what he'd accomplished, especially because it looked as if a St. Louis police officer was going to put a contract on the property.

Tom and his older brother and two sisters grew up in the little southwest-city house that his parents bought in 1951, the year it was built. Every morning during the school year, Tom left 6050 Pointview to attend St. Dominic Savio School and, later, Bishop DuBourg High School. It was while he was living at his parents' home that he met Jimmy Donovan, and the two quickly became friends.

In 1986, Jimmy introduced Mary, his 18-year-old kid sister, to Tom. Also a Bishop DuBourg graduate, Mary was in her first year at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Mary was quite a beauty, but Jimmy didn't want his friend, then 25, to get any ideas. "Don't even think about it," he warned Tom.

Although Tom was keenly aware that his friend's kid sister was off-limits, it didn't stop him from keeping track of her over the next few years. He'd show up at social gatherings where he knew Mary would be, and, finally, five years after their first meeting, Tom found an opening. Mary had recently broken up with her boyfriend, so Tom asked her to accompany him to a wedding reception. Somewhere between toasting the newlyweds, eating mostaciolli and dancing, their relationship sparked, and from that time forward, Tom and Mary were inseparable. In April 1993, Mary accepted Tom's proposal; in October 1994, the two married at St. Gabriel's.

The newlyweds moved into a home on Lola Street in Affton. Mary was working as a branch manager for Enterprise Rent-A-Car; Tom was a sales manager for J.D. Streett & Co. The couple talked about having children, so in June 1996, Mary took a job as a regional sales representative for Forethought Group, a company selling prearranged funeral services. For the first three months, the new job would require intensive training and travel, but after that, Mary would have flexible hours and could work from home -- ideal for a new mother. While Mary was spending the summer of 1996 learning her new job, Tom was doing repairs on his dad's house.

When Tom and Mary climbed out of bed on Sunday, Aug. 25, 1996, they were looking forward to spending time with each other and with Mulligan, their 6-month-old golden retriever. Mary dressed in a sleeveless button-down blouse, shorts and leather sandals. Tom threw on a T-shirt, walking shorts, socks and shoes.

The couple attended 11:30 a.m. Mass at St. Dominic Savio. Afterward, they chatted with Rev. Ed Feuerbacher, then swung by their home to fetch Mulligan. When they arrived at 6050 Pointview, Mary busied herself getting the dog out of the car and checking the mail while Tom headed for the front door. Inside, the home smelled of fresh paint and "old-man house -- like Gold Bond medicated powder," Mary recalls.

Tom swung open the basement door. As he descended the staircase, he heard a hissing sound, "like the sound you hear when you are inside a house and someone outside has turned on a sprinkler to water the grass." But Tom says he didn't smell anything unusual.

He walked to the corner of the basement, reaching up to pull the chain that would turn on a light. Mary and Mulligan were still on the basement stairs. The door at the top of the stairs remained ajar. Tom pulled the chain.

Immediately there was a huge explosion. For Tom, it seemed as though "the floodlights at Busch Stadium" had been switched on directly in front of him. Mary saw the flash, then a huge orange fireball heading straight toward her. The blast knocked her off her feet and down onto the stairs. Mary felt as if the sun had dropped from the sky and onto her, pressing a thousand hot irons into her flesh.

Tom was at the epicenter of the explosion, and his forehead, arms, legs and back were instantly burned. He dropped to the ground in a fetal position as the house lifted off its foundation and the gas meter was blown from the wall.

Covered with debris and glass, Mary pulled herself up from the steps and discovered that her fingernails, always meticulously manicured and polished, were on fire. She tried to blow them out, but they kept reigniting. The buttons on her blouse were burning; the entire house was on fire.

A repairman who had been working on a home nearby heard Tom and Mary's screams, ran over and kicked out what was left of a basement window. As Mary started toward the window, she heard Jim Jaeger's voice coming from the top of the stairs. Jaeger, a Vietnam veteran who lived in a home with a floor plan that mirrored the Hessel home's, yelled, "Do not go out the window!" He kicked aside the debris, ran down the stairs, helped Mary out of the home and laid her on the lawn. As Jaeger returned to the burning building to retrieve Tom, other individuals moved Mary to a lawn across the street.

Mary's skin started to react to the second- and third-degree burns she had sustained over 75 percent of her body. "My skin was red; I looked at my arms and saw white splotches appear. They got bigger and bigger until they grew so big that they touched each other. The splotches then opened up, and the skin just slid off." The pain was excruciating. "Somebody do something!" she cried. One woman tried to help by removing the leather sandals that had melted onto Mary's feet. But when the woman touched Mary's feet, she screamed in pain.

Another well-intentioned bystander approached her with a garden hose, hoping to douse her body with cool water. As soon as Jaeger saw the hose, he yelled, "No, get that away from her!" The veteran knew that hose was packed with bacteria -- bacteria that can be deadly to a burn victim.

Jaeger laid Tom, who sustained deep second-degree burns over 50 percent of his body, on the lawn and ordered the bystanders to wrap the couple in white cotton blankets. Then he returned for Mulligan. The dog's fur was burned off in the blast, and his nose and paw pads were injured.

As they waited for the ambulance to arrive, the house was engulfed in flames. The heat from the fire became so intense that it melted the siding off the house next door.

Mary, the most badly injured, was the first to be taken to the hospital. Once inside the ambulance, the pain became unbearable. "Let me die! Let me die!" Mary remembers screaming to the paramedics before lapsing into unconsciousness.

The odds were not in Tom's or Mary's favor. Both were placed in drug-induced comas. It took Tom four weeks to regain consciousness; Mary would not wake up until Oct. 19.

Concealed beneath the ground in the St. Louis metropolitan area lies a natural-gas-distribution system that mirrors the region's transportation system. A main gas line is buried either directly underneath or to the side of the many roadways running in front of St. Louis' homes. And just as a driveway provides a path for a car from the home to the road, a service line connects each home to a main gas line.

In the early part of the 20th century, bare steel was the most popular material used for service lines. Without protective tape or electric grounding, the bare steel was susceptible to corrosion, and lines eventually became pitted and deformed -- not unlike the warped and distorted steel removed from sunken ships.

In the mid-1950s, when inspectors discovered how quickly the bare-steel service lines were deteriorating, gas companies across Missouri were required to fix the problem. Laclede Gas Co.'s solution was to take a smaller copper pipe and slide it inside the larger steel line. Not only would the insertion of copper into the corroding steel lines fix the leak, it would be cheaper than laying new lines. That's what happened at Ollie and Marie Hessel's home: In 1960, the year before Tom was born, Laclede Gas slipped a copper line into the steel service line that ran to 6050 Pointview.

The Missouri Public Service Commission approved Laclede Gas' copper-insertion program. Laclede Gas may have been the only utility in Missouri to use this method: "I am not aware of any other company in Missouri that inserted copper into the steel lines," says Bob Leonberger, manager of the PSC's gas-safety department. According to Mark Lauber, a Laclede Gas employee who frequently testifies on behalf of the company in lawsuits arising from natural-gas explosions, copper was inserted into the steel lines on a widespread basis from the mid-1950s until 1972. However, the insertions were performed on a "limited basis" from 1972 until 1989 -- the same year the PSC banned the use of copper in new installations. According to court documents, as of 1996 approximately 80,004 hard-copper lines had been inserted into bare steel. The largest concentration of the lines is in St. Louis City and the inner-ring suburbs, including municipalities such as Clayton, Richmond Heights, University City and Affton.

Leonberger says the state's ban on copper was prompted not by safety concerns but, rather, because better materials were available. But a national expert on gas-pipeline safety says there were serious problems with Laclede Gas' program of inserting copper into bare-steel lines -- problems the utility should have anticipated decades ago.

Doug Chisholm, former chief of the research unit of the office of pipeline safety for the U.S. Department of Transportation and an expert later hired by Mary Hessel's attorneys, says that by bringing two dissimilar metals (in this case, copper and steel) into contact with each other, Laclede Gas increased the likelihood of galvanic corrosion -- actually causing the already corroding steel to be eaten away at a faster rate. The science is fairly basic: Soil acts as an electrolyte, starting a sort of "battery" reaction between the metals and causing the steel to corrode, Chisholm says.

The remaining steel then presses down on the copper line, and as soil expands and contracts as a result of rain, freezing and thawing, a hinge can form between the remaining steel and copper, Chisholm says.

The hinge can then poke a hole in the copper line, causing it to leak. In addition, steel pieces fall onto the copper line, after which the galvanic reaction between the two thins the copper line to the point where it leaks. The galvanic-corrosion process has been documented as far back as 1948 in a number of engineering studies. And the industry guidelines that existed in the 1950s and '60s prohibited the insertion of copper into steel unless an insulating coupling was inserted in order to stop galvanic corrosion.

In 1955, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers stated in section 847.44, the part of its code governing gas-transmission and distribution piping systems: "Provision shall be made to prevent harmful galvanic action where copper is connected underground to steel. This can be accomplished by ... install[ing] an insulating type coupling, or an insulating flange, between the copper and steel...." In 1969, National Fire Protection Agency standard 4.4.4 advised: "When dissimilar metals are joined underground, an insulating fitting shall be used. Piping shall not be laid in contact with cinders."

Laclede Gas blatantly ignored those prevailing standards during the period it was inserting copper into its steel lines, Chisholm says.

Even though plenty of research warned of galvanic corrosion between copper and steel and the industry guidelines required that companies prevent galvanic corrosion between dissimilar metals, Laclede Gas went ahead with the copper-insertion program. The PSC gave Laclede Gas the green light and, even today, maintains that no risk is involved. According to Leonberger, galvanic corrosion actually protects the copper line that carries the gas because the corrosion attacks the steel casing first, shielding the copper from corrosion.

That view is contrary to available research and contradicted by the explosion that maimed Tom and Mary Hessel in 1996.

According to the PSC's gas-incident report on the explosion at 6050 Pointview, completed in January 1997, the bare-steel casing of the service line to the Hessel home was "badly corroded. The worst corrosion was in the area where the copper service line was found fractured. In this location the bare-steel casing had completely corroded away leaving the copper service line exposed to the surrounding soil."

The report indicated that the bare-steel corrosion "was typical of galvanic corrosion." Laboratory tests concluded that the leak was caused by "stress corrosion cracking," which occurs when cracks develop in the copper service line as a result of the combination of "an aggressive corrosive environment and an applied or residual stress over time."

It wasn't the first time it had happened, either. The report on 6050 Pointview cites a similar explosion that also involved copper inserts into bare steel. This one occurred in Richmond Heights -- four years before the Hessels were critically injured. On Nov. 14, 1992, a home at 1118 Surrey Hills Dr. was demolished in a natural-gas explosion. No one was home at the time. The original steel service line had been installed in 1952. In 1965, a copper tube was inserted into the steel.

After the explosion in Richmond Heights, Laclede Gas asked Shankar M.L. Sastry, Ph.D., professor of metallurgy and materials science at Washington University, to analyze the copper and steel piping. In his report, Sastry wrote: "The inner copper tube was in contact with the steel tube at the break point and exhibited gradual thinning near the fracture region. The outer steel tube was heavily corroded and the space between the copper and steel tubes was filled with broken pieces of corrosion product."

Sastry concluded: "[I]t is my opinion that the failure occurred as a result of a combination of bending and stress experienced by the steel/copper tube assembly due to settling of foundation wall and ground, severe corrosion of the steel tube inside the foundation wall, physical contact of the copper tube with steel tube, and steel corrosion products, and the presence of inclusions, possibly oxide particles. The combination of these factors acting together resulted in stress assisted intergranular corrosion cracking of copper tube and eventual failure of the tube."

George M. Russell, Laclede Gas superintendent for maintenance engineering at the time of the Richmond Heights explosion, sent Sastry's report to the PSC. In his cover letter, dated Feb. 16, 1993, Russell said the service line's failure "resulted from a complex and unusual interaction of stress and corrosion." Russell added: "Laclede has no record of this type of failure in the past; and due to the unique and uncommon combination of circumstances indicated does not believe this failure to be systemic."

Despite Laclede's protests that the explosion in Richmond Heights was unique, the PSC then recommended that Laclede Gas study the copper-and-steel service-line combination and asked that Laclede Gas inspect enough of the copper-and-steel combinations to make up a statistical sampling.

Laclede Gas balked at the request, claiming that a statistical sampling "would result in excessive and unnecessary costs to Laclede and extreme inconvenience and disruption of service to our customers, but yield little if any meaningful information." Instead, the company said it would examine 100 of the combination copper-and-steel lines during the course of routine work. If corroded service casings were found, the pipe would be removed and sent to a Laclede Gas laboratory. If it was determined that the corrosion was similar to the type at the home in Richmond Heights, more tests would be conducted. The PSC accepted the proposal.

On Feb. 16, 1995, Laclede Gas filed its leak-survey report. According to a summary of the report, the company sampled just 78 copper-and-steel lines, rather than the agreed-upon 100. The samples were taken "primarily within the St. Louis City limits and those areas in St. Louis County immediately adjacent to the City of St. Louis."

The summary of the leak survey states that the bare-steel service lines were inspected. The summary sent to the PSC also claimed that "an inspection of any inserted copper or plastic service line was performed whenever the corrosion penetrated through the unprotected bare-steel casing pipe within the foundation wall or any damage or corrosion was evident on the service line." The report concluded that the corrosion samples were not like the corrosion in the Richmond Heights home. The report stated that Laclede Gas would keep the samples if the gas-safety staff wanted to look at them.

Attorneys Steve Ringkamp and Teri Appelbaum, who represented Mary in her St. Louis Circuit Court lawsuit against Laclede Gas, question both the way the leak survey was conducted and its results. They contend that the examination was deficient because the physical inspection meant nothing more than looking at the pipe. A microscope was not used during the inspection. Nor did Laclede Gas inspect the copper tube inside the steel line -- even though it is the line that actually carries the gas.

In a deposition taken for Mary's lawsuit against the gas company, Ringkamp asked Lauber: "My question to you, sir, is that Laclede Gas had a failure of a copper in steel service line at 1118 Surrey Hills on Nov. 14, 1992, following which Laclede Gas looked at 78 samples, but only looked at the steel and didn't look at any of the copper inside the steel in any of those 78 samples; is that correct?"

"Yeah. We did not make an examination of the copper," Lauber answered.

"And at Surrey Hills, it was the copper that failed that caused the explosion; correct?" Ringkamp asked.

"It was the copper that failed as a result of the steel failure that caused the explosion. I don't believe the incident report strictly related to just copper failing," Lauber said.

"My question to you was a very simple one, and that was at Surrey Hills it was the copper that failed and caused the explosions; is that correct?" Ringkamp asked.

"Yeah, that's correct," Lauber finally admitted.

Ringkamp pressed Lauber further, asking why Laclede Gas had resisted the PSC's original request to conduct a statistical sampling.

Lauber testified: "[N]umber one, the sampling program would have taken years, and I think the Public Service Commission wanted something within 15 months. And number two, yes it was expensive and it wouldn't have produced any good data in our estimation."

Ringkamp, Appelbaum and Chisholm also suspected that the samples obtained during the leak report showed a lot more stress-corrosion cracking and fatigue -- which were the types of corrosion involved in the Richmond Heights explosion and the one on Pointview -- than Laclede Gas was letting on. However, they weren't able to confirm their suspicions. When the samples were subpoenaed in Mary's lawsuit, Laclede Gas was unable to produce them -- the samples apparently had been discarded or destroyed.

But the PSC and Laclede Gas insist the copper insertions are safe. And to prove it, Leonberger notes that Laclede Gas has to report the number of leaks it experiences each year in the copper insertions. But when asked how many leaks occur, Leonberger said, "That is not public information." Under state law, investigation reports filed with the PSC remain private unless a formal docket has been opened to study the issue -- and that hasn't happened in the case of copper-and-steel-line leaks.

Assurances by Laclede Gas and the PSC that the risk of service-line failures is minimal should be comforting. However, another recent lawsuit filed by the family of another gas-explosion victim demonstrates just how long Laclede Gas and the PSC can be aware of a problem and choose to study it rather than fix it.

Louis Brown walked out of his Valley Park home to light a barbecue grill on Feb. 22, 1999. Natural gas had leaked from a nearby service line, migrated underground and collected in the breezeway of Brown's home at 688 Meramec Station Rd. As the 78-year-old passed through the home's breezeway, he tested the butane lighter in his hand and set off an explosion. Brown lingered for 11 days before dying of his burn injuries. Brown's family filed suit against Laclede Gas in St. Louis Circuit Court.

In Brown's case, the copper line was not inserted into an existing steel service line. It stood alone. Otherwise, the tubing contained the same amount of copper. In the early 1960s, Laclede Gas began using direct-buried soft copper. According to Lauber's deposition testimony, there are approximately 80,000 direct-buried copper lines throughout Laclede's service area. During a deposition in the Brown case, Lauber testified that Laclede noticed leaks from the soft-copper pipes as early as 1971. Moreover, an internal document prepared in 1974 reported that the soft-copper lines were "a continuing problem that also appeared to be accelerating." The company began keeping separate records on the soft-copper leaks. In 1976, the company discovered 120 leaks; in 1977 there were 199 leaks, in 1978 there were 279, in 1979 there were 278 and in 1980 there were 409. Laclede Gas did not replace its system of direct-buried soft-copper service lines after accumulating the data, nor did the PSC require it to replace all of the lines.

Additional leaks occurred in the next three years. In 1982, there were 452 leaks; there were 447 in 1983, 522 in 1984 and 595 in 1985. The entire direct-buried soft-copper service-line distribution system was still not replaced, and the PSC did not order Laclede Gas to undertake the project.

Then the explosions started.

On Oct. 26, 1985, a home at 2548 Starling Airport Rd. in Arnold blew up after natural gas leaked from a direct-buried soft-copper service line. A woman was in the home but sustained only minor injuries and didn't need hospitalization. After the explosion, Laclede Gas prepared a map outlining the areas where it found most of the leaks were occurring. The lines weren't replaced; instead, a Laclede Gas truck drove through the areas with a natural-gas detector attached to the outside of the vehicle. But if gas is migrating along the path of least resistance, there is a chance it is not making it out into the street but is instead winding its way toward the house. In the gas-incident report prepared after the Starling Airport Road explosion, the PSC recommended to Laclede Gas that "consideration be given to replacement of the copper services."

On April 2, 1989, in South St. Louis County, a home at 5217 Patterson Rd. exploded as a result of a direct-buried soft-copper service-line leak. The two people in the home at the time weren't injured. After the explosion, the PSC asked Laclede Gas to "formalize its copper service line evaluation program" -- in other words, evaluate, not replace, the copper lines.

That same year, the PSC issued its ban on using copper for new installations.

An unoccupied home at 4285 Ringer Rd. in Mehlville exploded on May 15, 1990, after the direct-buried soft-copper service line leaked. At that time, the PSC recommended that Laclede Gas review and revise its surveying procedures. The agency did not require Laclede Gas to replace all of the existing soft-copper service lines.

On March 13, 1998, a natural-gas leak from direct-buried soft copper caused an explosion at 732 Bergerac Dr. in Creve Coeur. Four days later, a direct-buried soft-copper leak caused an explosion at 401 Pralle Ln. in St. Charles. No one was home at the time of the explosion in Creve Coeur, but in the St. Charles explosion, a 9-year-old boy and his grandmother sustained second- and third-degree burns to the hands, face and neck. At that point, the PSC opened a special docket. The purpose of the docket was to give Laclede Gas a chance to re-evaluate the direct-buried soft-copper service-line program and for "implementation of more stringent and timely replacements of direct-buried copper services."

Less than a year later, Louis Brown, the Valley Park man, was killed. Brown's family hired John Simon, a St. Louis lawyer with a well-deserved reputation as a bulldog. It was through Simon's efforts -- and those of attorney Jason Dodson -- that Laclede Gas' problems with direct-buried soft-copper lines came to light. While the Brown suit was pending, Laclede Gas, the PSC and the Office of the Public Counsel finally entered into an agreement in May 2000 to replace them -- sort of.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Contrary to news reports last year, the agreement doesn't require Laclede Gas to replace all 80,000 of the direct-buried soft-copper lines. Patrick Seamands, the company's chief engineer, said in a deposition taken in October that Laclede Gas agreed to a much more modest replacement program. When Simon asked whether Laclede Gas had made a decision to replace all of its copper service lines, Seamands answered no.

"There is a program in place to replace services at the rate of 8,000 a year for three years," Seamands continued. "At that point in time, we will review the program and see where we are."

Leonberger confirms to the Riverfront Times that the copper-replacement program only requires Laclede Gas to replace 8,000 lines per year for three years. Then the PSC and Laclede Gas will evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

Leonberger also confirms that the replacement program only applies to the direct-buried soft-copper lines. It does not address replacement of copper-and-steel lines such as the one that ran to 6050 Pointview.

According to Laclede Gas' original estimates, it would have cost almost $1,000 per installation to replace the direct-buried soft copper -- or $80 million to replace the entire system. Reducing the replacement figure to 24,000 lines also reduces Laclede's cost to $24 million -- which is reassuring news to Laclede Gas' shareholders.

In the company's most recent annual report, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Dec. 14, Laclede Gas indicated that the costs associated with the replacement program were "either being deferred through a deferral mechanism approved by the PSC or capitalized through the normal course of business."

The report offered additional good news for shareholders -- the $8 million settlement with Louis Brown's family would not hurt the company's bottom line: "One lawsuit involving a claim for wrongful death and punitive damages has been settled, the effect of which is not significant...."

As Tom and Mary lay unconscious in their hospital beds, their friends and families searched for a way to make sense of the tragedy and sought out ways to make themselves useful.

"The 200 nuns at Nazareth Living Center -- my dad's retirement community -- prayed for us," Tom says. "There were prayer lines across the country -- we still have boxes of letters from Texas, California and Indiana," Mary adds. "It was a miracle we both lived. Prayers were why we were saved."

Tom and Mary's employers kept them on full salary until their long-term-disability benefits kicked in, and Mary's former co-workers at Enterprise Rent-A-Car sponsored fundraisers for the couple. Those volunteer efforts raised more than $100,000 to help the couple pay medical bills. Most of Tom and Mary's bills were covered by insurance, so they donated the contributions to the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

When Tom emerged from his drug-induced sleep after the explosion, he learned of Mary's extensive injuries and their brush with death. An overwhelming sense of guilt set in: "A husband is supposed to protect his wife. I will always feel like I failed to do that. The decision I made to go into that house almost killed us."

As he struggled with the guilt, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Tom's doctors also forced him to begin intensive and extremely tiring physical therapy. Burned skin has no elasticity; if not exercised, it will seize up. He had to relearn basic skills -- how to use his hands, how to use his arms and legs -- and he couldn't drive. When he was released from the hospital in early October, his sister Claire used the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for her brother. "Claire drove me to hospital every day to take me to therapy and then to see Mary." Each morning she applied lotion to his extremely sensitive new skin. In the evenings, Tom's friends Tom Huck and Cindy Luebke stayed with Tom to help him around the house, apply lotion to his skin and care for Mulligan. The help was welcome and needed, but, Tom says, "It is hard to be dependent on so many people. It was like the explosion just plucked me out of my life."

Just before Thanksgiving 1996, Tom was able to drive. In December, he endured 20 to 30 new blisters on his skin every day and struggled with the psychological injuries.

While Mary was in a coma, her doctors at Barnes-Jewish Hospital performed an initial skin graft on Sept. 4, 1996, on her arms. Nine days later, the doctors performed a 12-hour surgery to skin-graft her face. On Sept. 18, her right arm was fitted with a graft, and, two days later, grafting was performed on her left arm. Her left leg was grafted on Sept. 24, and on Oct. 4, her right leg, both hands, feet and elbows were grafted. The day after she emerged from the coma, her legs were regrafted.

Despite the surgeries, Mary was still disfigured. And she had no idea how badly her face had been injured, because Tom was her only comparison. "Tom visited me in the hospital, and I just assumed I looked like him." Mary's parents instructed the hospital staff that when Mary finally asked to see a mirror, she could not have it until they were present in the room with her. But Mary never asked to see a mirror while she was at Barnes. It wasn't until she was transferred to St. John's Mercy Medical Center that the issue came up, and the directions from Mary's parents somehow didn't get through to the staff. So when a nurse discovered that Mary had no idea what she looked like, she flipped open a drawer and pulled one out. The only two people in the room that day were Mary and the nurse. "Why didn't anyone tell me it was this bad?" she asked as she stared at the stranger in the mirror. Then she cried.

The time at St. John's was grueling, Mary says: "Therapy, therapy, therapy -- for six hours every day. We would work in the morning, break for lunch, then work in the afternoon." Her hands had been badly injured, and she had to learn how to use them again. Even today, after the extensive therapy, some of her fingers are permanently bent and gnarled as a result of tendon and capsule damage to her hands. Some of her fingernails are missing.

But Mary's big concern wasn't therapy; she wanted to talk about plastic surgery: "My doctor told me plastic surgery wouldn't start until after the physical therapy is completed because there is only a limited window" to regain movement. Reconstructive surgery didn't start until October 1997, after her physical therapy began tapering off. Mary says, "Before the plastic surgeries started, I asked the surgeon if he could make me look like I did before the accident." The surgeon replied, "No, only God can give you your face." So her goal changed from looking as she did before Aug. 25, 1996, to looking "normal" enough so that people wouldn't stare when she went out in public. Since the process began, she has undergone 26 plastic surgeries, and the process is not complete. In May 2000, her insurance company stopped paying for the surgeries, leaving her with the $20,000 tab. According to the insurance company, the surgeries are cosmetic, not reconstructive.

At home, things were difficult between the couple. The bonds of a 22-month-old marriage are still fragile, and well-meaning family members can overreach. The Donovans and Hessels started dividing into camps -- each group had its own ideas about what was best for Tom and Mary. They agreed the couple should sue Laclede Gas, but they couldn't agree on lawyers. Eventually Tom would hire Bob Ritter; Mary would go to Steve Ringkamp.

There were other stresses on the marriage. Physical therapy left them too exhausted to talk. In the afternoons, Tom worked for several hours with the insurance companies to make sure mounting hospital bills were paid. Both Tom and Mary's appearances had been altered. For most, the face is a fundamental part of one's identity -- how we picture ourselves. Mary had lost that. "You don't get over it, but you try to get past it," she says. Living inside their skin was also extremely uncomfortable; it itched, tingled and blistered. Mary wore splints to bed at night. For two years, the couple could not sleep in the same bed.

The stress on their marriage was like "an open infected sore," Tom recalls. The couple began to argue, and the arguments intensified. "We didn't fall out of love," Mary says, "but we didn't like each other very much." They sought counseling; they leaned on their religious faith.

As the pair struggled with their pain, their attorneys battled Laclede Gas, seeking to hold the utility responsible for the explosion and forcing it to compensate the couple.

Tom, whose injuries were less severe than Mary's, settled his case early for a confidential sum. But Mary's case dragged on. Laclede stood by its position that it had done nothing wrong and should not be held responsible for the accident or her injuries. Ringkamp, her attorney, recommended that the case go to trial, but the stakes were high. Mary had had already incurred more than $1 million in medical expenses, had a projected wage loss of $1.5 million and would need 20 to 25 more surgeries costing $500,000; and future medical care might go as high as $1.6 million. And trying the case meant Mary would have to reopen painful memories to 12 strangers.

In 1999, the case went to trial. During jury selection, several potential jurors were disqualified because they said they could not look at Mary's injuries and remain impartial. One prospective juror referred to Mary as "that poor thing."

When Mary took the stand, she recounted not only the accident but the injuries and painful rehabilitation. She recalled the debridement procedure -- a process in which dead skin was peeled off her body. She described the balloons doctors implanted in her back, just under the skin that had not been burned in the accident. The balloons were filled with water in order to stretch the skin so that it could be harvested and used on her face. During Mary's testimony, one juror left the courtroom and threw up.

The last witness to take the stand for the plaintiff was Doug Chisholm. He sat before the jurors and explained galvanic corrosion. He outlined for the jury each code provision he claimed Laclede Gas had violated when it inserted the copper lines directly into the steel pipes.

After Chisholm's testimony, Laclede Gas decided to settle the case. The amount is confidential.

Asked whether the company apologized to the Hessels, Laclede Gas spokesman Richard Hargraves says the settlement terms are "confidential." Why did the company settle? "Because the parties reached an agreement."

Hargraves volunteers: "Mary Hessel is an incredible person, and we hold her in the highest regard."

The Hessels' lawsuits may be over, but Laclede Gas' problems with older service lines aren't.

The company has more than 65,000 direct-buried soft-copper lines left to replace and another 80,000 copper-and-steel lines, like the one at 6050 Pointview, still in service.

Although Hargraves says Laclede Gas is "ahead of schedule" in the program and has replaced 11,200 direct-buried soft-copper lines, the company has no replacement program at all for the copper-and-steel lines. Hargraves says there's "no real need to remove good pipe." Laclede Gas, he says, monitors all of its lines according to the state's requirements and replaces any service line "when necessary." Asked about galvanic corrosion and Leonberger's statement that galvanic corrosion is actually a "protective process," Hargraves says: "Bob Leonberger is an expert in this field and is the state's expert." He adds, "We believe it is safe."

But on the basis of what was learned as a result of Mary's case, Ringkamp says the copper-and-steel pipes are "virtually guaranteed to fail.

"The problem that caused Mary and Tom's burns exists throughout St. Louis today and is waiting to happen again," he says.

Chisholm, the pipeline expert, agrees. "There is a significant and foreseeable risk of leaking with the long-term corrosion experienced by the copper-and-steel service lines," Chisholm tells the RFT. And Chisholm says Laclede Gas isn't replacing the lines because the "blunt truth" is that "they have weighed the litigation costs against the replacement costs" and decided it is cheaper to litigate.

Instead of replacing the lines, Laclede Gas seems think it can prevent explosions by relying on its oh-so-familiar safety campaign: "If you smell gas, call." But the experience of explosion victims suggests that the campaign should be rephrased: "If you are lucky enough to smell gas, call." The odorant added to natural gas can actually be stripped away in an underground leak. That is apparently what happened in Louis Brown's case, and it may also account for why the Hessels say they didn't detect gas.

"In every single case I've been involved in where a person has been injured in a natural-gas explosion, nobody has ever smelled the odorant. Soil can filter odorant placed in natural gas," Chisholm says. Stripping "appears to be a prevailing theme in many cases. And the problem of odorant stripping has been known for 25 to 30 years or more by the industry," Chisholm adds. Laclede Gas, according to testimony in Mary's case, is aware of the problem but refers to it as "absorption."

The Missouri regulations now ban the use of copper. Instead, plastic lines are used, and gas meters have been moved from inside homes to the outside. The service line actually comes up out of the ground near the house, makes a 90-degree turn and connects with the gas meter. If a gas leak occurs, the migrating gas will have a greater chance of dissipating into the air rather than collecting inside the home. These are relatively recent changes. They do not address the potential problems with older lines.

Laclede Gas, of course, is only responding to what state regulators are demanding, and the regulators aren't very demanding. Chisholm doesn't find that surprising. In his many years of looking at the interaction between public service commissions and the gas industry, Chisholm says, he's found that the relationships can be incestuous. Missouri's PSC is no exception. And he notes that because of budgetary constraints, the PSC is required to rely on Laclede Gas to audit itself, investigate itself and report the findings to the PSC.

"Because of staffing and manpower problems, all the PSC can really do is audit Laclede Gas," Chisholm says.

Tom and Mary Hessel have already donated a substantial amount of money they received from Laclede Gas to support the Phoenix Society, which assists burn survivors. Since the accident, they have been involved with Burns Recovered Support Group. Tom also serves on the board of the group. And each summer they work as counselors at the Missouri Children's Burn Camp. They also formed the Second Chance Burn Foundation and are raising funds to assist burn survivors.

Mary and Tom also picked up on the conversation started before the explosion interrupted their lives -- they decided to try starting a family. There were misgivings, though. First, women who have sustained severe burns can go into premature menopause -- so there was concern Mary would not be able to have children. And Mary confided another one of her concerns to her attorney Teri Appelbaum. "Do you think a baby could love someone who looks like me?" she worried. Despite her concerns, Mary became pregnant but then miscarried. She became pregnant again, and, in March of this year, Jennifer Hessel was welcomed into the world.

Tom and Mary are trying to move on with their lives. They describe themselves as survivors, not victims. But they're still angry with Laclede Gas for failing to address a public-safety problem that turned their lives upside down.

"The fact that they knew before our accident that these pipes weren't safe and still they aren't willing to put public safety first and fix them, well, that's the ultimate burn," says Mary.

"How many more times does it have to happen for them to change their policy on this? Hopefully it won't take burning one of their own, because if they aren't strong enough to put public safety first, then they aren't strong enough to survive a burn injury."

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.