By Jack Minch
FITCHBURG -- John Tate stood outside the remains of his Victory Auto store on Lunenburg Street Wednesday, wondering whether he should rebuild the 17-year-old business that was destroyed in a fiery gas explosion Tuesday night.
"It's going to be hard to leave because it's the only thing I've ever done," said Tate, 65, of Townsend.
The 5:10 p.m. explosion that destroyed part of Tate's building was caused by an accidental natural gas leak, according to the state Fire Marshal's Office.
The Department of Public Utility's Pipeline Safety and Engineering Division is investigating the incident, said Mary-Leah Assad, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
"The investigation just started so we don't know the root cause or where the liability falls," Assad said.
State Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, is questioning whether the 4-inch main line in that area was in good condition. DiNatale said Wednesday night that he was told the piping in the area has undergone numerous repairs.
"They use some kind of process that doesn't lend itself to longevity," DiNatale said. "They plug the leak when they should be replacing the lines."
Unitil spokesman Alec O'Meara said the company replaces piping regularly to keep the system up to date. He said there is no record of leaks at that location in the past year.
"We replace two miles of pipe a year to ensure our system is constantly updated and upgraded," O'Meara said.
But DiNatale charges that utilities do not repair gas lines properly because of the cost, which he said is jeopardizing public safety. DiNatale is co-sponsoring a bill filed by state Rep. Laurie Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, that would require utilities to patrol gas lines for leaks during winter months.
"We've got lines throughout the city that I'm sure have been decades of disrepair and probably, most likely, the utility knows about them, knows they are there, but for reasons of economics they go unrepaired," DiNatale said.
Families at 5 Linwood St. and 204 Lunenburg St. were displaced by the explosion.
Tate has been in business for himself since 1982.
"It's going to be hard to leave because it's the only thing I've ever done," Tate said.
Friends and associates have already offered him space in other buildings, but Tate said he liked his shop on Lunenburg Street.
He bought Victory Auto when it was at Boulder and Putnam streets in a building owned by John Viola of Fitchburg Tire. Tate relocated the business to Summer Street for six years and around 1996 bought the current site.
Before he opened Victory Auto, Tate worked for Don Hagar's Datsun on John Fitch Highway until 1979. He then opened J&L Imports Auto Parts with a partner.
Tate recalled the explosion with a remarkable level of calmness.
He said he was standing at the counter helping a customer when the gas exploded on the other side of the building in his office. The force of the explosion blew the front door into the parking lot.
"All of a sudden we heard a big, big boom and that's when the drop-ceiling started falling, so we walked out," he said.
Steve Keoseian Sr., who owns Keosa Brothers Shoe Repair across the street, was standing at the counter with a customer when the left side of Tate's building exploded.
He described a fireball shooting toward his store like an asteroid in a Hollywood movie. Spider-web cracks spread across the storefront's windows.
"I saw it coming and ducked, then heard an explosion," Keoseian said.
A customer who was in the store at the time of the explosion dropped the shoes she was holding. She said she would be back, then rushed out the door without even leaving her name, said Keoseian.
At Aldrich Auto Body & Repair, which is located directly across the street from the explosion, cracks formed in the exterior wall and a window loosened from its frame. Owner Angel Aldrich was not in his building at the time of the explosion.
Friends of Tate's stopped by his shop Wednesday to check on him and his wife, Nancy.
"There is definitely an angel, or angels, looking over the three of these people," said Bobby Andries.
"Granted, (Nancy) wasn't here but normally she is."
Nancy Tate works at North Middlesex Savings Bank in Groton but also works part-time as a bookkeeper at her husband's business. She was not there at the time of the explosion.
"I'm very sad and mixed up and very nervous," she said.
Tom Conry of Leominster, who visited the shop three to five times a week to buy parts for his 1971 Chevy Chevelle or just chat, said Nancy is often in the office. He was at home when he heard reports of the explosion on a police scanner.
"I just heard 'building explosion' and 'Victory Auto,' and I was out the door," Conry said.
Doug Duval of Lunenburg drove to the scene Tuesday evening when he heard about the explosion.
"I was just hoping John was OK, that's all," Duval said Wednesday. "I was a firefighter in this city 35 years, and you just want the people to be OK. If he was in his office he probably wouldn't be talking to us."
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