Fatal blast in Truckee still an unsolved case
The Union News Service
A boarded-up window and a sagging strip of yellow caution tape are all the memories that remain of a chilling scene six months ago at No. 101 at the Henness Flats Apartment Complex in Truckee.
On Aug. 18, 2009, an explosion left a 27-year-old mother dead, her husband badly burned and their three children recovering from minor injuries.
Six months later, many of the apartment building’s former tenants are gone. And one big question remains unanswered.
“All of the people I’ve represented there have moved away,” said Mary Marsh Linde, an attorney who represented about 10 neighbors who were among many displaced for days after the incident. “They were afraid.”
A Truckee Fire Protection District report in October attributed the incident to water poured on a grease cooking fire, which led to the death of Isela Minutti. Her husband, Wuliber Martinez, 31, was taken to UC Davis Medical Center for treatment to burns that covered 45 percent of his body. The injured children, ages 12, 7 and 10 days old at the time, were later released to family members.
According to the report, the only question remaining was whether the antifreeze in Henness’ fire sprinkler system made the fire turn into an explosion that threw broken glass from windows more than feet into the parking lot and broke an interior door in half.
Nearly four months after that initial report, the answer to that question is now in the hands of the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“They have the ability to try and replicate those conditions in a lab, but until they do that, it’s inappropriate to guess,” said Truckee Fire Chief Bryce Keller. “I’m equally miffed by it (how the explosion occurred), but the report was well done. It’s (the antifreeze issue) why we moved it on to the state.”
On Jan. 12, the National Fire Sprinkler Association issued “Antifreeze Cautions” in response to the Henness Flats incident.
“There is concern that the concentrations of antifreeze was unacceptably high, possibly due to poor mixing and ‘settling’ of the antifreeze solution on the ground floor of the two-story building with attic,” the report states. “Because antifreeze liquids are combustible in relatively pure form, the first caution is not to use more antifreeze than needed.”
The report goes on to say that antifreeze solution can be completely mixed so it won’t settle out or concentrate.
But Keller cautioned against assuming that was the problem in Henness Apartment No. 101.
“We have absolutely no reason to believe the fire suppression system was not at the ready,” Keller said.
The State Fire Marshall’s Office in Sacramento did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
The town’s building department certified the building – but not apartment No. 101 itself – fit for occupancy on Aug. 27.
That town’s conclusion wasn’t enough to ease the minds of some residents, however, considering the exact cause of the explosion at the time was still unknown.
“They expect us to move back in but don’t know what happened? Would you want to live there?” said Alicia Lampkin, whose apartment was next door to the unit where the explosion occurred, in an Aug. 27 story on http://www.sierrasun.com.
Lampkin was among the group of people displaced whom Marsh Linde represented after the incident. This week, when asked about the October report from Truckee Fire that stated a cooking fire was to blame, Marsh Linde questioned the department’s conclusion.
“I think the fire department gave us a line about what caused the explosion,” she said.
Keller said the department was very proactive about both the investigation and making sure the building was safe to move back into, and was quick to go after the resources of the State Fire Marshal’s Office to help resolve unanswered questions.
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