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Explosion destroys historic Townshend home

Investigation continues, propane leak eyed as cause of blast

TOWNSHEND—The exploded house belonging to Carlton Smith on the Grafton Road in Townshend is slowly sinking backwards on a diagonal, reported Brett Gaylord, one of the several Windham County Sheriff’s deputies guarding the place around the clock.

He pointed out empty spots in the collapsed rubble, formed by door frames and windows, that have shrunk. The explosion took place not long after 2 a.m. on July 19.

Representatives from Cota and Cota of Bellows Falls, which supplied the owner with propane, and an investigator, who declined to give his affiliation and said only he was “an independent investigator,” were at the house on July 23 inspecting the property and the propane tank.

Townshend Fire Chief Doug Winot, reached at his job at Grace Cottage Hospital, said he was surprised to hear that morning that an inspector was on the site with representatives from Cota and Cota. He said he was under the impression that inspectors were going to meet with representatives of the propane company and the insurance company representing the owner later in the week.

Winot also said that, on July 20 and 21, he and representatives of NewBrook Fire and Rescue Department and others examined the propane tank, a so-called “hundred pounder,” attached to the outside of the house in their quest to find the cause of the explosion.

“When we held a (fume) detector to the bottom of the tank, it went way up,” he said, “so we turned the tank over and saw that the bottom was rusted and filled with small holes. We poured water over the holes and it bubbled, indicating there was fuel and pressure in the tank.”

That led Winot and others to conclude that the tank had been slowly leaking for some time, he said.

The firefighters were the first to examine the tank. When they finished their inspection, they lodged the tubular tank upside down in the crook of a nearby tree in the large garden, mostly left unscathed and protected by fragrant beach roses separating the garden from the Grafton Road.

Winot and one of homeowner Smith’s friends confirmed that she had smelled propane for several weeks before the explosion and that the propane dealer had come to the house at least once.

“They did a couple of things,” Winot explained. “Last month, they put in a new regulator. They sprayed the lines with soap and water, but as far as I know, they didn’t use a gas (propane) meter. We used the one belonging to NewBrook. They also filled up the tank maybe three weeks ago.”

Casey Cota, president of the fuel company, said the explosion is still under investigation. He declined to elaborate except to say, “It was still not determined what caused [the explosion]. I just spoke to both investigators, and it could be weeks before we know. This is not my field of expertise.”

Winot, other Townshend firemen, and members of NewBrook Fire and Rescue covered most of the wreckage with blue tarps to protect it from wind and rain.

The capacious early 19th century house was blown from its foundation at about 2:15 a.m. July 19, causing a boom strong enough for Joe Winrich and his family who live across the road and the Townshend Common, to feel the concussion, Winrich said.

It was Winrich who called 911, and he wasn’t sure if anyone was at home.

Winot said the emergency tone went off at 2:45 a.m. in his Townshend house. He said he was at the station within eight minutes of the call.

He said he was most afraid of fire because water was in short supply, and that he and others remain wide-eyed that a fire did not develop.

“When propane explodes,” Winot explained, “the force of it blows away the oxygen, which is what the fire needs.”

A quick fire may have moved through the house because the rescued cat had slightly singed fur.

Winot stayed at the site long enough to get sick and to require care for five hours at Grace Cottage Hospital. He was suffering, he was told, from heat exhaustion and dehydration. He took a day off afterward but ended up at the scene anyway.

Responding to the alarm were firefighters from NewBrook, Wardsboro, Dummerston, and South Newfane/Williamsville; while Brattleboro covered the NewBrook station.

One of Smith’s two aging cats, a male named Py, remains in the house, as of the afternoon of July 23. He would not come near enough to rescuers to be removed.

The other cat, a female named Smudge, was rescued on July 20 and was taken to the West River Veterinary Service in Newfane, where she is reportedly recovering.

Memories that remain

Smith was vacationing in Maine when the explosion occurred; her two daughters are in New York. Her friend Lorrie Snow had been in the house Tuesday night to feed the cats.

Smith is a 24-year veteran of the Leland & Gray English department. She retired last year and has owned the house for many years.

The house was filled with beautiful things, some family, some acquired. The Christmas party she gave every year, assigning all the guests a recipe to fill out the already lively food tables, was a warm event bringing together many of the people she knew from different parts of her life. The luminous Christmas tree, placed in small room off the living room, was a sight to behold.

While she was in Townshend at the scene, Smith said she was devastated and could not talk about the explosion.

The destroyed house has some historical significance, according to Robert DuGrenier, chairman of Townshend Historical Society.

“The Holbrook family, one of the town’s founders, lived in the house at some point but I’m not entirely sure when,” he said.

There are early pictures of the colonial-era home, showing that it might be of a standard four-over-four construction.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #162 (Wednesday, July 25, 2012).

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