The Family of a Man Killed in a South Philly Gas Explosion Is Suing the City

They say the problem isn’t fixed, and more people are at risk.

The lawsuit argues that the City and PGW have failed to adequately address a long-known problem: Philadelphia’s gas pipes are old and corroding, which makes them at higher risk of explosion.

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 8th 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 the many leaky, at-risk gas mains are located.

In an interview, Connie Diu said while her family has suffered daily since the explosion, they feel like the city quickly moved on without addressing the underlying problem.

“It can’t just be one pipe in the city,” said Connie Diu, 26.

The lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas Thursday morning by 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 City declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

PGW extended its condolences to the impacted families, and said in an emailed 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. We investigate every odor call we receive and conduct maintenance, whenever needed. Prior to the Dec. 19 [2019] incident, PGW received no recent calls from the area reporting gas odors. PGW also had no recent street opening work in the area since March of 2015,” the utility company said.

Joseph Emanuel of Bart Emanuel and Son Plumbing and Heating, LLC, one of the contractors named in the suit, said in an email that “numerous independent investigations, including the investigation conducted by the PA Public Utility Commission, have confirmed that we were not negligible nor a contributing factor in this incident.”

Cast iron pipes are vulnerable to corrosion and grow brittle with age due to “graphitization.” More than 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 were injured after a gas main in Northeast Philly exploded and blew apart George’s Bar & Restaurant. 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 8th 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 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, was upstairs. He 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 the family has struggled, but has worked hard to try and 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 til 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, citing safety concerns.

But the replacement process is extremely costly. In 2016, PGW sped up efforts to replace its riskiest pipes. The goal is to replace all of Philadelphia’s cast-iron mains by 2057. Active projects can be seen online.

We’ve already lost at least a dozen Philadelphians due to gas leaks, and yet PGW and the city is moving at a glacial pace to remedy the problem.

Steve Wigrizer

“Certainly Connie Diu and her family expect appropriate compensation, 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,” he said.

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 than the current plan, which it says would have prevented the catastrophe. 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.

“We want an expedited program to replace the aging pipes, and if PGW is not in a position to do it, then perhaps another company should be given the opportunity,” he said.

The lawsuit also names companies Bart Emanuel and Son Plumbing and Heating, LLC, and Lepore Plumbing, Inc., who were hired by two homeowners to perform underground plumbing and excavation work on the street beginning in October 2019, and allegedly did work above and around the gas main.

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 that they would be doing work near the main or request that gas be turned off during the 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.”

The suit also lists five unknown contractors who they believe did work on the street. Lawyers are still working to identify them.

Wigrizer said sovereign immunity would likely apply to the city in this instance, which caps legal payouts at $500,000. But he said the issue is being reexamined by the Supreme Court, and hopes it could be adjusted before the case concludes, or that the case could spur another look.

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.

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