The contractor working for New Jersey's largest utility at the site of a town house explosion that killed one resident recently had been fined more than $100,000 by safety regulators for problems at two other sites, but the utility said Wednesday it never had any problems with the construction firm.
Blue Bell, Pa.-based Henkels & McCoy was cited last year by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violations involving signaling, warning signs and protection of workers during excavations. The company is contesting the fines.
Henkels & McCoy was working to replace electric service to the blast victim's home Tuesday when it damaged a gas line, Public Service Electric & Gas said. The utility said it was told of the damage around noon Tuesday and crews were repairing the line about an hour later when "ignition" occurred, obliterating the home, damaging more than 50 others and injuring seven utility workers.
At a news conference late Wednesday, a PSE&G director of gas construction, Mike Gaffney, expressed confidence in its contractor. He said the utility had a long-standing relationship with the firm, that it had done good work for the utility and that there had been no prior problems.
The victim of the blast was identified as Linda Cerritelli, 62, a resident of the house leveled in the blast. She was a regional office coordinator for a prescription drug unit of the health products giant Johnson & Johnson, the company confirmed.
Police said that a son who lives out of state was en route to New Jersey, but didn't provide any other information about her death. Her body had been found late Tuesday on a car some distance from the house, police said. She was identified through dental records.
Authorities said that they were still working to establish the ignition point in the blast at a town house development but may never be able to do so. At least 20 homes remained uninhabitable Wednesday, though residents were allowed back in to retrieve medicine, clothing and other belongings.
Though the damage caused a gas leak, the pipeline itself did not explode, the utility said the day of the explosion.
Gaffney said Wednesday the utility still did not know what happened, but workers who were at the site at the time were cooperating with the investigation.
Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann said the gas line that was damaged had been marked out. He said it's possible they will never be able to identify the point of ignition.
The development remained littered with shingles and plywood, with clumps of insulation still clustered in trees. Blue tarps were going up over holes in the homes.
Records provided by the OSHA show that Henkels & McCoy was fined $70,000 in March 2013 for safety violations at a site in Bayonne and $42,000 for violations in Neptune in August.
The company said it is cooperating fully in the Ewing investigation.
"We are deeply saddened at the loss of life," company spokesman Dave Lamoreaux said. "Obviously this is a significant event for Henkels & McCoy as well. We are a 90-year-old company that prides itself on doing good, solid work in the community, and we will support the investigation in any way we can."
Residents returning to pick up clothing and medicine from their homes Wednesday included Anita Lenobell, who turns 67 Thursday. She said her kitchen floor had buckled, windows were damaged and some items had fallen off shelves and walls, but she didn't think the house was heavily damaged.
Lenobell, who lives just a few doors down from the blast site, said she had gone grocery shopping about a half hour before.
"I probably would have had a heart attack if I was here," she said.
Meryl Klein said she and her husband returned briefly to their home Tuesday night, then spent the night at a hotel.
Klein said she couldn't see how much her home was damaged because it was too dark. The house had a sticker labeling it as uninhabitable, but she said she believed officials were erring on the side of caution.
Some of the displaced were being sheltered at a firehouse, while others were staying with family and friends.
The seven people injured were all PSE&G workers, the utility said. Officials said none of the injuries was considered life-threatening.
Associated Press writer David Porter in Newark contributed to this report.