Mass. firefighters rescue woman from gas leak

Firefighters entered through a second floor window and woke her up


By Paula J. Owen
The Telegram & Gazette

FITCHBURG, Mass. — A woman known as the "bird lady," and her menagerie of exotic pets, is safe after a gas leak that caused levels to register 7 percent above the lower explosive limit in an East Street home yesterday morning.

Deputy Fire Chief Brian F. Belliveau said homeowner Rebecca R. DeSantis was sleeping in her bed upstairs in her home when firefighters entered through a second floor window. She had to be shaken to wake her up, he said.

Unitil gas and electric company called the Fire Department for help about 9:30 a.m. yesterday, he said, because they could not get into the house and were concerned a gas pipe had broken.

"It's unusual for Unitil to call for help," said Fire Chief Kevin F. Roy. "We usually call them — this one was the other way around. It usually means it is a pretty serious leak."

A meter reading showed gas levels in the home were 7 percent above the lower explosive limit, said Deputy Chief Belliveau, and carbon monoxide levels in the home were also elevated.

"When you're above the lower explosive limit, there is a true explosive hazard," he said. "We've all seen news reports on buildings going up in splinters when it goes undetected."

The leak was caused by a defective burner in the furnace. The burner was releasing raw gas into the building, he said.

Firefighters found five boa constrictors of various sizes inside the home, and tanks full of mice and frogs, as well as two kittens, cats and birds. Neither the animals nor Ms. DeSantis needed treatment.

Neighbors had reported smelling gas earlier that morning.

James T. Ingalls, renting a third floor apartment across the street at 199 East St., said he was outside doing yard work about 8 a.m. yesterday and smelled natural gas.

"I came outside and that's all you could smell," said Mr. Ingalls. "I started noticing small amounts of it around 8 a.m. I just didn't seem right. I was concerned for her (Ms. DeSantis)."

He said when his neighbor came home after dropping her daughter off at school and also smelled a strong odor of gas, he called the Fire Department.

"I didn't know where it was coming from at first," he said. "The fact that I could smell it made me concerned."

The situation was first reported as a gas leak on the street.

"We couldn't get anyone to respond when we got there," Deputy Chief Belliveau said. "Firefighters used ladders to get to the second floor and enter through a window with an air conditioner, to minimize damage. Once they got inside, they opened windows to vent the home."

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