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I-Team: Burn Survivor Speaks Out After Gas Explosion

STEPHENVILLE, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) - Nineteen months after a house explosion in Stephenville, Texas, Russell McElyea can finally talk about his severe burns and the fight to save his best friend.

"Seeing your best friend covered in flames. And they were a couple of inches tall, all over his body," he said as he dropped his head and apologized. The sentence was too hard to finish.

Russell McElyea
Russell McElyea - gas explosion survivor (CBS 11)

In the summer of 2017, McElyea's friend, 57-year-old Navy veteran Raul Pedroza lit the stove to cook lunch.

Raul Pedroza – burn victim
Raul Pedroza – burn victim

"There was a big poof! And about a six foot gaseous circle with blue," McElyea recalls. "It had a blue flame all the way around it and he was standing in the middle of it."

McElyea managed to carry Pedroza out the front door before the back of the house exploded. He called 911.

Police body cams captured McElyea on the curb. Pedroza can be seen, in agony and unrecognizable. On video, he is heard begging for help.

Pedroza lived for 15 months before passing away in August 2018.

His family and McEleya are now suing Atmos Energy, saying the two friends never smelled gas in the home before lighting the stove.

Stephenville stove after explosion
Stephenville stove after explosion

Federal law requires an odorant, a smell similar to a rotten egg, to be injected into gas before it ever reaches your house, but the I-Team has learned scientists and safety experts have warned for years that that odor can fade or lose its smell due to several factors including:

--age, length and composite of the pipeline
--not enough odorant to begin with
--absorption into pipe walls and/or soil.

McElyea insists that they did not smell gas. "I was standing four feet from Raul," he said.

In court documents, the gas company calls the plaintiff's' requests for records a "fishing expedition." It "denies Atmos caused the incident," and states the "gas was properly odorized."

The I-Team has found other Texas lawsuits, including a fatality, which make similar claims about odor fade.

A year and half later, McElyea is dealing with this legal battle, medical bills and he is struggling with the enormous loss of his best friend.

"Every time I think about him I start to cry," he said. "It felt like a piece of my heart was ripped out."

Fire investigators on the scene said the accident was caused by an open gas valve. The families maintain they still should have smelled the gas.

Atmos sent CBS 11 the following statement following the I-Team's first investigation and in response to this update:

Utilities odorize natural gas so that it is "readily detectable by a person with a normal sense of smell" as required by federal and state regulations. The odorant we use in our Mid-Tex Division adds a "rotten egg" odor to natural gas. Our technicians conduct periodic sampling with instruments to assure the proper concentration of odorant throughout our pipeline system.

For most people, the sense of smell is a highly reliable indicator of natural gas release. However, continued exposure can desensitize the sense of smell. In certain rare conditions, the odor intensity can be diminished by physical and/or chemical processes, such as when gas passes through certain soil conditions.

Please remind everyone: do not rely on your sense of smell alone to detect the presence of natural gas: use any of your senses—smell, listen, or look—to check for signs of a leak. If you ever smell or otherwise detect leaking natural gas, leave the premises immediately and call 911 and Atmos Energy at 1-866-322-8667.

You asked about the pending litigation in Stephenville. Atmos Energy has no evidence that odor fade occurred at the residence.

If you are concerned about a natural gas leak in your home, experts say a UL-certified natural gas detector can detect natural gas leaks.

They costs between $40 and $80.

I-Team: 'Odor Fade' Led To Explosion That Severely Burned North Texas Man, Family Says

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