Scott Friedman, NBC 5 Investigates
A fire marshal and a North Texas family blame a product that carries flammable gas through millions of American homes for a fatal fire and explosion that claimed the life of their son. The industry argues it is safe.
A Lubbock fire marshal is joining a North Texas family in blaming corrugated stainless steel tubing for a fatal fire and explosion that claimed the life of their son.
Brennen Teel was visiting friends Ross and Meg Rushing in Aug., 2012, when a clap of thunder was heard over their Lubbock home. Moments later, the burglar alarm sounded and the Rushing’s couldn’t turn it off.
Brennen and Ross went to get a ladder from the garage to disable the security system.
“That’s when the explosion happened,” said Ross Rushing. “Honestly, I thought I was dead immediately.”
Meg grabbed the children and headed for the door. Ross climbed out from under the buckled garage door, but he couldn’t find Brennen in the thick black smoke.
Firefighters would later find Brennen’s body in the garage. They believe he opened the drop down attic staircase, not knowing the attic was on fire. Oxygen rushed in, causing a backdraft explosion.
“I would not wish this on anybody. Anybody. This has been a nightmare,” said Ken Teel, Brennen’s father.
Garett Nelson, the Lubbock Fire Marshal, determined the fire started with the yellow corrugated stainless steel tubing in the attic. CSST are flexible tubes used to pipe gas to furnaces and appliances in many newer homes.
At least six companies make yellow CSST in the United States and it’s approved by The National Fire Protection Association, which writes the building codes for gas piping.
Nelson doesn’t believe a fire such as this would have occurred if the home hadn’t been constructed with CSST.
“I think it would be very safe to say, no, not the same way,” Nelson said.
Nelson believes lightning hit the chimney cap, traveled into the attic, jumped or arced onto the CSST and punctured tiny holes in the thin walls of the tubes that released and ignited the gas, creating mini blow torches.
“Now we've got flame jets coming out of those pipes, so it very quickly involved the entire attic,” said Nelson.
Believing the CSST contributed to a death, the City of Lubbock issued a moratorium that bans contractors from installing the tubing.
“This needs to end with Brennen Teel. That needs to be the last fire death that is created because of a bad product,” said Nelson.
The company that made the CSST in the Rushing's home said their product is not to blame.
Titeflex declined an on camera interview but in a statement William A. Brewer III, a lawyer representing the company said, “Naturally, we are deeply saddened by the accident. However, we believe the claims advanced against our client are without merit.” (Read the entire statement here.)
The company's experts believe the fire and explosion were caused by lightning damage to electrical wiring which ignited foam insulation in the attic. Insulation they will argue was improperly installed. A claim the insulation company denies.
“They do that in every case. That’s their defense, their modus operandi is blame someone else, blame anybody, blame the plumber, blame the electrician,” said Ted Lyon, the Teel family attorney.
Experts Lyon consulted with have no doubt the fire started with the CSST, including expert Mark Goodson who is an engineer and a scientific adviser to the state fire marshal's office.
Goodson has personally investigated more than 200 CSST cases and has testified against CSST manufacturers in other fires.
For more than a decade he’s looked at cases where fire departments across the country have reported holes in CSST after lightning storms.
In his lab he punched a hole in a piece of CSST similar in size to holes he's seen in actual fires to show NBC 5 Investigates what the jet of flame from a hole in CSST can look like.
Goodson said the fire can continue to burn from the pipes, like a blow torch, until the gas is cut off. Meanwhile, the fire can grow faster due to the constant supply of flammable gas.
“That's what distinguishes them from many other types of fires, is the blow torch effect, and how fast the fire develops,” said Goodson.
The CSST industry claims fires are unlikely to happen if the CSST is properly connected or “bonded” to the electrical grounding system in the house.
The National Fire Protection Association’s committee on the issue of CSST safety recently said bonding and grounding CSST provides "a reasonable level of safety," but the agency has not made a final decision on use of the product in future versions of the building code. In 2010 NFPA warned manufacturers they might prohibit CSST in the future if manufacturers couldn't show bonding and grounding reduces the risk.
A recent industry supported study by the Gas Technology Institute found bonding and grounding CSST will reduce the risk of damage during, “…nearby lightning strikes.”
But when it comes to lightning that hits the house directly, the study found bonding and grounding, "does have limits” and “ … a direct lightning strike may carry enough charge to cause damage ..."
Bob Torbin, one of the men who pioneered CSST, recently spoke to firefighters in Dallas. The company he works for is not involved in the Lubbock case.
He declined to be interviewed on camera but argues CSST is no more of a risk than many other things that can spark a fire if a home takes a direct hit by lightning.
“There’s nothing in your house that’s lightning proof,” said Torbin.
Some fire investigators said the difference between CSST and other things in the home that can spark a fire is that CSST carries flammable gas that can continue to feed a fire.
“So they're assuming if it's a direct strike, all bets are off, they know that,” said Nelson. “There are direct strikes. It's not like they don't happen."
Critics of CSST argue the walls of the tubing are simply too thin, much thinner than the old black iron pipe that was used to supply gas in homes for decades.
“I will state that in almost 30 years of looking at fires I have never seen black pipe fail from lightning,” said Goodson.
CSST manufacturers said their product is safer than black iron pipe — which has more joints that can leak causing explosions. Black pipe is not flexible and can crack in an earthquake or tornado or when a home foundation shifts.
Meanwhile, the Teels insist they'll continue to speak out and won't settle their lawsuit unless Titeflex agrees to changes.
"We have a voice now. Brennen's story is not over just because he's gone," said Becky Teel, Brennen’s mother.
“The bottom line is we expect them to take the product off the market. That's minimum,” said Ken Teel.
They're frustrated that Titleflex now makes a new black-coated CSST called "flashshield" that’s advertised as more being more lightning resistant. But the company still sells the old yellow version as well.
“So they made something safer. But they continued to leave the other on the market,” Becky Teel said.
Titeflex insists yellow CSST is still safe. Brewer, the company’s attorney said, "We have complete faith in this product."
Brewer believes the Lubbock Fire Marshal reviewed only studies commissioned by the Teel’s attorneys in determining to issue a moratorium on the use of CSST.
“Many may find that to be questionable, if not irresponsible. Many national regulatory bodies and fire safety agencies have found CSST, when properly installed, to be safe and effective,” Brewer said.
Fire Marshal Nelson responded, telling NBC 5 Investigates, “To say that all we considered was one side of the information is pretty disingenuous.”
Nelson said he has also read independent research trying to make the best decision for his community. He said he based his initial decision on the fact that a death occurred and that his department had seen other fires involving CSST. Nelson said he’s given the manufacturer opportunities to present him more information but has not received any so far.
More than a year after the fire in Lubbock, Brennen Teel’s parents want him to know their fight for answers isn't over.
“After the explosion, we never found his cellphone. That number's still alive. I text him often, fill him in on where we are,” said Ken Teel.
During the three month investigation into CSST, NBC 5 Investigates contacted two other companies who produce corrugated stainless steel tubing to see what they had to say regarding the safety of their product when it comes to lightning strikes. Their responses can be read here.