Business Journal – City Paid Company to Relocate Utilities at Explosion Site

City Paid Company to Relocate Utilities at Explosion Site

By Denise Dick | Friday, May 31, 2024

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The city paid the company working in the Realty Tower basement at the time of this week’s explosion $140,133 for utility relocation.

The explosion killed Akil Drake, 27, an employee of the Chase Bank branch on the first floor of the building, injured seven others and displaced residents of the 23 apartments on the building’s upper floors.

Tom Chapman, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said at a Thursday news conference that an abandoned gas line, which was pressurized, had been cut before the explosion.

On April 25, the city’s board of control, which includes the mayor, law director and finance director, approved paying GreenHeart Companies $140,133 “to provide all labor, tools, material, supervision and equipment required to complete all utility relocation in reference to Realty Tower Vault Infill.”

The city contracted with GreenHeart to expedite the work, said Chuck Shasho, deputy director of public works for the city. “Basically, we needed to get it done as quickly as possible,” he said.

Asked whether it is common for third parties to do this kind of work, Shasho responded that the city had done it only on one other occasion, when it contracted with Gatta Co., owner and redeveloper of the Federal Building, to perform work related to the Phelps Street project.

“It was almost the exact same situation because [Gatta] was also the building owner, the same thing with Greenheart, although now I’m understanding maybe they’re not the building owner,” he said. “We negotiated a price, and they did the work themselves because [we believed] they were the building owner, and it was really the cleanest thing to do.”

The contractor is “100% responsible” for ensuring the supposedly inactive line wasn’t pressurized because it was issued a drawing that had the notes that it needed to do the work, Shasho said. He believes Dominion requires “some kind of certification” to work on gas lines, even service lines, but he was unsure what certification specifically.

Shasho said he spoke with Brian Angelilli from Greenheart early on, possibly Wednesday, before the more recent revelations. “My understanding is he wasn’t even in town,” he said.

GreenHeart representatives couldn’t be reached to comment.

In response to the volume of inquiries from media outlets, Shasho said a fact sheet providing information about the incident was being compiled by his department, the law department and the mayor’s office. City Law Director Lori Simmons Shells confirmed that the document is in the works.

The money for the utility relocation work came from the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development Grant, as well as various state, federal and private funds.

GreenHeart’s proposal, submitted to Shasho April 1, said the work would involve removing and relocating all gas lines and meters, electrical, data and phone lines, furnace water tanks and water treatment systems and sprinkler lines and valves into the basement.

The work was connected to the Mahoning SMART2 – or Strategic & Sustainable, Medical & Manufacturing, Academic & Arts, Residential & Recreational, Technology & Training – Network project. The city’s website says the project is to enhance “mobility, improving safety, and integrating technology into a modern and efficient multimodal transportation system in Downtown Youngstown that is responsive and adaptive to the needs of current and future users.”

In an April 19 letter to the board of control, Shasho wrote: “The basement vault roof system is in conflict with the proposed roadway improvements. All utilities in the vault area must be relocated to allow the vault to be infilled.”

At the Thursday news briefing, Chapman, the NTSB member, said a below-surface gas line at the site that wasn’t in service but was pressurized with natural gas had been cut. A line that isn’t in service shouldn’t have gas in it, Chapman said.

“Preliminary information suggests that work crews were present in the basement of the building for the purpose of clearing out old utility infrastructure,” he said. “A possible third-party cut to the pressurized service line is a central focus of our investigation to determine the cause of the gas release and subsequent explosion.”

Enbridge Gas of Ohio is the surface provider for the area, and the main gas line that serviced the building runs in front of it, along East Federal Street and Market Street, Chapman said.

Related to the Realty Tower explosion, the agency is especially interested in issues related to gas line failure and system integrity management, as well as third-party work in the vicinity of gas lines and emergency response, the NTSB official said.

NTSB has a long-standing concern about third-party work in the vicinity of gas lines, Chapman told reporters.

He said part of the investigation will involve what the appropriate procedures are in the work that was done, as well as if those procedures were followed.

The NTSB hopes to interview the workers as part of its investigation.

Also part of its investigation will be a determination of “why that apparently abandoned service line was still pressurized,” Chapman said Thursday afternoon.

Ohio811, also known as the Ohio Utilities Protection Service, also issued a statement.

“This was a very unfortunate situation and we would like to extend our sympathies to all who have been affected,” Jaime Gillen, director of public relations and communications at Ohio811, said in the statement. “As there is a multi-agency investigation underway, we are unable to provide information or insight regarding this specific incident. However, it is important to remind the public to always practice safe excavation and to contact OHIO811 prior to beginning any underground work. Notifying OHIO811 is a free service available by dialing 8-1-1 or online at”

The NTSB is expected to be in Youngstown for about a week and to issue a preliminary report in about 30 days. It will take a year or two for a final report to be released.

Chapman said the NTSB’s role is to determine what happened, not to assign blame or fault.

Realty Tower residents, believing they would be able to enter the building Friday to retrieve some possessions, learned when they arrived that they would not.

Councilwoman Samantha Turner, 3rd Ward, said the fire chief determined that there was no way for residents to enter the building fire escape from the outside, so residents weren’t permitted to go in due to safety concerns.

Charles Cook and Reniro Jackson lived in an apartment in the building with Cook’s sister, Barbara Smith, and nephew Randy Smith. They planned to move out before the explosion, unsatisfied with the building management.

Barbara and Randy Smith came to stay with Cook after fires in Hawaii last year destroyed their home. The family has been staying with other family members in the area since the explosion.

Randy Smith was in the Realty Tower apartment at the time of the explosion. Initially, when he heard the first alarm go off, it didn’t raise concerns because alarms sound frequently. Then he heard a loud boom, and the building shook.

“I just got the dogs and got out,” he said.

He was stuck in the stairwell with another man and the man’s cat. The explosion collapsed the floor, leaving them unable to get out.

“They had to come and dig all that rubble out to get him and that guy with his cat out,” Cook explained. “When he called, I wasn’t here. I thought my nephew was going to die in that building. I didn’t know what was happening.”

Randy Smith said he wasn’t hurt.

“But when I got him home, he vomited all over the place and passed out,” his mother said.

Cook and Jackson plan to relocate for jobs this weekend and aren’t sure when they’ll be able to come back or when it will be safe for them to retrieve their belongings. They’re frustrated that they weren’t able to enter the building Friday as they were told they would be.

Cook worries about his two pet snakes that remain in the building.

“They need water,” he said.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.