Two years after a natural-gas explosion blew the heart out of Greenwood, Puget Sound Energy is still blaming others. Including — by mistake, they say — an innocent victim of the blast.
The year 2016 was one Alex Sokolowski would just as soon forget.
He was asleep in his third-floor Greenwood apartment March 9, 2016, when a natural-gas line exploded across the alleyway. It blew out his windows, ripped the Sheetrock off his ceiling and knocked his bedroom door off its hinges.
The blast leveled three businesses and damaged dozens of others. Sokolowski lost all his belongings and had to move out for nine months while his apartment was repaired. The sole financial assistance he got came from the Red Cross and donations through the Phinney Neighborhood Association.
“For two years the thing I’ve been telling myself is: ‘I didn’t die,’ ” he says. “So I’ve just been trying to move on with my life at this point.”
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Not so fast, Mr. Sokolowski. Last month, in a court filing in one of the endless insurance cases related to the explosion, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) not only dragged him back in. The utility inexplicably blamed him for the blast.
“To the extent that … damages were caused by the reckless and/or intentional acts of other defendants and/or non-parties, such damages should be segregated from any damages that may be attributed to PSE,” the company wrote in a legal filing.
Then it pointed at him: “Non-parties who committed reckless and/or intentional acts … include: Alex Sokolowski.”
It also blamed three homeless folks who were known to hang out in the alley near where the pipe began leaking.
“They’re obviously misinformed,” Sokolowski said. “But I’m not all that surprised. They’ve been avoiding taking responsibility for what happened out here all along.”
When I contacted PSE for comment, at first a company lawyer said they needed more time to dig into the case to answer my questions. But later Tuesday, a company spokeswoman emailed that it was all a misunderstanding.
“After review, Mr. Alex Sokolowski’s name was listed in error. He was interviewed as a witness. We are updating the filing to remove his name,” a statement said.
End of story, right?
Davey Oil wishes it were.
“Alex Sokolowski could easily have been killed that night,” Oil says. “Even if blaming him was a mistake, it shows how they’ve been casting about for anybody to blame from the beginning.”
Oil owns the G & O Cyclery bike shop that was damaged in the blast. He’s one of the businesses suing PSE to cover his costs. He says he’s still in debt from damage and about a year of diminished sales.
“Why is this still going on two years later?” Oil said. “This was corporate negligence. That’s what the state found. But they simply won’t take responsibility for that.”
Sokolowski says his only connection to this mess, other than being a victim of it, is that his window looks out over the alley where it happened. He had called 911 repeatedly in the months preceding the blast to try to bring the alley’s drug dealing and a bicycle “chop shop” to the attention of police. But he says the police never did anything.
In other interviews by the fire investigator, two homeless men describe storing bike parts and other belongings in a crawl space where the old gas pipe was sticking out of the ground. The theory is that they damaged the pipe — a point PSE jumped on in its press announcement after the state Utilities and Transportation Commission alleged 17 violations of pipeline regulations against the utility.
“All parties investigating the March incident, including the UTC and the Seattle Fire Department, agree: the natural gas system at the Greenwood site was damaged by unauthorized individuals in a space not intended for human activity, with the resulting gas leak causing the explosion and fire,” PSE wrote.
That statement brazenly ignored the report’s main finding. Which was that “the leak and explosion would not have occurred but for PSE’s failure to properly disconnect and seal the line.”
In other words: There wasn’t supposed to be any gas in that pipe in the first place.
Sokolowski said it doesn’t make any more sense to blame the homeless people than it did to blame him.
“It’s all pretty obvious what the real problem was,” he says.
Yes and it’s been obvious for going on two years. It’s way past time to end this blame game, PSE, and make Greenwood whole.