Friday, April 7, 2017

One year after the Nottingham Estates subdivision in Maryville, Illinois gas explosion, worker’s death still embroiled in legal dispute

A gas explosion in the Nottingham Estates subdivision in Maryville left flames shooting into the air. Police closed Illinois 162 between Illinois 157 and Illinois 159 and evacuated the area. Jimmy Simmons, Adam Latham Provided

By Kelsey Landis


In the afternoon of April 6, 2016, John Doug Behme, of Worden, was using a construction-grade tiller along Illinois 162 for a planned subdivision when his equipment struck an underground gas pipeline, rupturing it. The gas exploded. Billowing black smoke darkened the partly-sunny spring sky.

Burns covered 70 percent of Behme’s body. Behme, 44, died of his injuries on April 29 in the burn unit of Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, 23 days after the explosion.

Maryville Police Officer Justin Krausz was on patrol when he saw the towering 75-foot flames. After calling in to dispatch, he drove toward the explosion. He got as close as he could, then saw a man emerge from the flames. Despite his injuries, Behme was conscious and walked toward Krausz and Sgt. Brandon Ponce, who had arrived shortly after Krausz. The two helped carry the man a safe distance from the flames.

The burning gas was so hot it melted the road. A year later, Krausz still remembers what happened there every time he drives over the short strip of new pavement. Today, a few model homes sit quietly next to empty lots waiting for construction. A sign reading “Care Free Living” marks the entrance to the subdivision.

But a struggle between Behme’s widow and the parties she holds accountable for his death continues. A wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Angela Behme and a review by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are still open a year after the explosion.


The inaugural “Rev It Up In Remembrance” car show for the Doug Behme Foundation will start at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 27 with awards at 5:30 p.m. The event will take place on East Wall Street in Worden. Free admission. Live music follows show. All proceeds will be used to benefit burn victims and their children and families.

OSHA issued a “serious violation” citation under standards for excavation requirements to Glen Carbon-based Keller Construction, a parent company of The Villas at Nottingham LLC, the subdivision’s developer. The administration suggested a fine of $7,000, but Keller Construction has contested that fine. Because the case remains open, a review by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has not yet been completed, OSHA spokeswoman Rhonda Burke said. The commission is an independent agency that reviews OSHA penalties.

Keller Construction did not return multiple requests for comment.

In June last year, Behme’s widow filed a wrongful-death suit, accusing five parties of being responsible for her husband’s death. The original lawsuit named the following defendants: Ameren Illinois; Keystone Construction and Development, which is connected to Keller Construction; and SMS Engineers.

Angela Behme is seeking an amount that ‘will fairly and justly compensate the family for their loss.’ Thomas Keefe Jr., attorney

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of 13 counts of negligence, claiming they failed to plan, design, locate, survey and direct observation on the subdivision construction project, and failed to ensure proper marking; and failed to investigate the depth of the gas pipeline before excavating, among other accusations. The lawsuit claims the loss of Behme’s love and companionship caused suffering and grief for his loved ones. Angela Behme is seeking an amount that “will fairly and justly compensate the family for their loss,” said Thomas Keefe Jr., the attorney for Angela Behme.

Though the original lawsuit named other limited liability companies tied to Keller Construction, the number of defendants has been pared down to focus on Ameren Illinois and SMS Engineers, an Alton-based engineering and land surveying company, said Keefe.

“We’re pretty certain most of the responsibility, if not all the responsibility, rests with Ameren,” Keefe said.

The Doug Behme Foundation’s inaugural Run/Walk in Remembrance 5K will be held at 9 a.m. on May 27. Packet and T-shirt pick-up and in-person registration from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 26 at The Wild Turkey, 115 E. Wall St., Worden or at 8 a.m. on Race Day. $25 early registration through April 26. $30 registration on day of race (shirt size not guaranteed).

Keefe said the 10-inch metal pipeline originally installed in 1962 should have been buried 3 feet underground, but he says at the time of Behme’s accident, the pipe was buried just 6 to 8 inches underground. The area’s topography might have changed over the years, the attorney added. Behme’s tilling equipment, called a rotary mixer, was set to dig 11 inches deep.

Ameren, however, claims Keller Construction failed to contact the energy company before workers began excavating. Ameren filed a third-party complaint, adding Keller Construction, the subdivision developer’s parent company, to the lawsuit.

Ameren, along with the company’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.

On March 17, 2016, Ameren says, its workers located the pipe and marked it with paint and yellow flags, according to Ameren’s complaint. An Ameren representative contacted Keller Construction on the same day to discuss the construction project’s status. A representative for Keller said the company would notify Ameren in advance of excavation, but the Keller company did not contact Ameren and proceeded without notifying the energy company, Ameren’s complaint says.

There are some things you’re never going to forget. Maryville Police Officer Justin Krausz

But Angela Behme’s attorney says otherwise. Keefe says Ameren failed to properly “pothole,” or check the pipe’s depth. Keefe alleges that Ameren officials in October “wanted to pothole the very area where this accident happened, but never followed up, never potholed it.” Just 50 feet to the west, Keefe says, Ameren checked the depth of other pipelines, and found those pipes were buried 51 inches.

“Keller reasonably believed that this thing was at least 4 and a half to 5 feet deep,” based on the nearby pipe depth, Keefe said.

Ameren denies Angela Behme’s assertions, arguing the energy company relied on Keller Construction’s word that they would not begin excavation without notification. Ameren’s complaint accuses Keller Construction of violating a law that requires companies to provide Ameren notice when they are preparing to begin excavation. Ameren also claims repairs to the pipe cost roughly $96,500, and the loss of gas amounted to nearly $5,000.

Keefe, meanwhile, asserts there is “zero evidence” Keller moved any dirt, saying the day of the explosion was Behme’s first day on the job and that he was operating a tiller, not excavating equipment.

In such a document-heavy case involving so many parties, the lawsuit will continue for at least another year, Keefe predicted. A trial has tentatively been set for March 2018.

As the legal battles continue, family and loved ones of Behme have started The Doug Behme Foundation’s to benefit burn victims and their families.

In February, the Southern Illinois Association of Police Chiefs awarded the Life Saving Award to the two Maryville police officers who helped pull Behme away from the fire. Krausz and Ponce say the explosion remains vivid in their memories.

“I think about that day every time I drive down that road,” Krausz said. “There are some things you’re never going to forget.”


Gas main explosion badly burns construction worker; Maryville police officer pulls him to safety

Longtime Maryville resident Jim Harrison says the gas main explosion, fire happened close to his home. He tells about seeing a person walk away from the flames on Wednesday afternoon. Kaitlyn Schwers

By Kaitlyn Schwers, Lexi Cortes and Elizabeth Donald

A gas line explosion and towering fireball hurt at least one construction worker and consumed construction equipment about 2 p.m. Wednesday along Illinois 162 in Maryville.

The injured person was taken to Anderson Hospital in Maryville with burns over 70 percent of his body, then flown to a St. Louis hospital. The equipment operator with Keller Construction in Edwardsville was stabilized at the Maryville hospital before being transferred to Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, which has a burn unit.

“They were able to get him here very quickly,” Anderson Hospital spokeswoman Natalie Head said. “Our prayers are with his family.”

News photographs and eyewitness accounts painted a chaotic scene, with police officers rushing toward the fireball.

Maryville resident Jim Harrison said he saw Maryville Police Officer Justin Krausz carry an injured person from the fire.

“He put his car in park, radioed it in and ran directly toward him, and picked him up and carried him a distance from the flames, then other rescue crews started arriving,” Harrison said.

Maryville Police Chief Rob Carpenter said a construction crew excavating at the site of the future Villas at Nottingham hit a 10-inch steel gas line and triggered an explosion at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. Carpenter said the intense flames made it difficult for emergency workers to work, but they were able to get to a worker who was seriously injured and rush him to the hospital. “The flames were shooting very high in the air when we arrived,” he said.

Early reports that there was a fatality on the scene were in error, Carpenter said. “Everybody else is accounted for,” he said.

Ameren crews were able to shut off the gas line, but the explosion set several cars on fire, some of which also exploded, Carpenter said. “We heard a lot of pops and bangs,” he said.

Carpenter said as far as he knows, none of the houses was damaged. Residents were evacuated for at least a quarter mile east and west from the scene. Illinois 162 was closed from Illinois 159 to 157, along with several side roads and sections of Illinois 157. “We’re not going to let anyone back in until we know it’s 100 percent safe,” Carpenter said.

John Barud, an Ameren operations director, said a loss of gas pressure was noticed immediately at a control center in Decatur.

“We saw a loss of pressure, and we knew something had happened to a 10-inch, steel, high-pressure main that runs down here,” Barud said.

“There’s a third party construction company, not Ameren, was doing some work at a subdivision down the road and they actually dug into this high pressure main. And it’s several hundred pounds of pressure. So once they dug into it and perforated it there was an escape of gas. And it would have come out like a jet engine, because of the pressure, and there was an ignition at some point,” Barud said.

Carpenter said he was not aware of what precautionary measures were or were not taken by the construction company regarding presence of gas lines.

Glen Carbon resident Sandy Gerstenecker-Weinacht said she smelled gas in the area more than an hour prior to the explosion Wednesday afternoon.

“I was just driving through on 159 at 12:45 and could smell gas by the new Circle K gas station and Walgreens,” she said.

The explosion led to evacuation of some homes in the area. Witness Jimmy Simmons, a freelance photographer, said the explosion rocked his house and then he saw the flames shooting up.

Simmons said a woman driving on Illinois 162 at Buck Road Cemetery had to abandon her car and run from the fire. Construction equipment was being consumed by flames and he shielded himself from the heat with a tombstone to get photos.

“I guess I was about a football field away from the fire,” Simmons said. “Even at that distance the heat was so intense. I worried about the power lines being burned and the power lines falling down. We didn’t stay very long.”

According to Collinsville Unit 10 School District, school buses carrying students to that area were intercepted. Students living in the affected area were being taken back to school, where families could pick them up.

Black smoke was visible from the south border of Maryville.