What Lies Beneath

Laclede Gas and state regulators knew about corroding underground service lines for years — and did little to fix the problem. Tom and Mary Hessel are among St. Louisans who’ve been burned as a result.

That Sunday began as a rare free day for Tom and Mary Hessel. Mary's recent job change required her to travel extensively during the week, giving the couple, married just 22 months, little time together. But on this particular Sunday, there would be no chores to finish, no bags to pack. Tom wasn't planning to play golf with his buddies; Mary wasn't going over to her mother's for an afternoon visit. Instead, they planned to spend the day together, attend church and look at the work Tom had done on his father's basement.

Tom and his siblings had been busy working on the family home at 6050 Pointview Ln., getting it ready to sell after his widowed father moved to a retirement home. Tom was anxious to show Mary what he'd accomplished, especially because it looked as if a St. Louis police officer was going to put a contract on the property.

Tom and his older brother and two sisters grew up in the little southwest-city house that his parents bought in 1951, the year it was built. Every morning during the school year, Tom left 6050 Pointview to attend St. Dominic Savio School and, later, Bishop DuBourg High School. It was while he was living at his parents' home that he met Jimmy Donovan, and the two quickly became friends.

Tom Hessel first met Mary Donovan in 1986. He was 25; she was 18. In October 1994, they were married at St. Gabriel's Church.
Ravetta Photography Inc.
Tom Hessel first met Mary Donovan in 1986. He was 25; she was 18. In October 1994, they were married at St. Gabriel's Church.

In 1986, Jimmy introduced Mary, his 18-year-old kid sister, to Tom. Also a Bishop DuBourg graduate, Mary was in her first year at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Mary was quite a beauty, but Jimmy didn't want his friend, then 25, to get any ideas. "Don't even think about it," he warned Tom.

Although Tom was keenly aware that his friend's kid sister was off-limits, it didn't stop him from keeping track of her over the next few years. He'd show up at social gatherings where he knew Mary would be, and, finally, five years after their first meeting, Tom found an opening. Mary had recently broken up with her boyfriend, so Tom asked her to accompany him to a wedding reception. Somewhere between toasting the newlyweds, eating mostaciolli and dancing, their relationship sparked, and from that time forward, Tom and Mary were inseparable. In April 1993, Mary accepted Tom's proposal; in October 1994, the two married at St. Gabriel's.

The newlyweds moved into a home on Lola Street in Affton. Mary was working as a branch manager for Enterprise Rent-A-Car; Tom was a sales manager for J.D. Streett & Co. The couple talked about having children, so in June 1996, Mary took a job as a regional sales representative for Forethought Group, a company selling prearranged funeral services. For the first three months, the new job would require intensive training and travel, but after that, Mary would have flexible hours and could work from home -- ideal for a new mother. While Mary was spending the summer of 1996 learning her new job, Tom was doing repairs on his dad's house.

When Tom and Mary climbed out of bed on Sunday, Aug. 25, 1996, they were looking forward to spending time with each other and with Mulligan, their 6-month-old golden retriever. Mary dressed in a sleeveless button-down blouse, shorts and leather sandals. Tom threw on a T-shirt, walking shorts, socks and shoes.

The couple attended 11:30 a.m. Mass at St. Dominic Savio. Afterward, they chatted with Rev. Ed Feuerbacher, then swung by their home to fetch Mulligan. When they arrived at 6050 Pointview, Mary busied herself getting the dog out of the car and checking the mail while Tom headed for the front door. Inside, the home smelled of fresh paint and "old-man house -- like Gold Bond medicated powder," Mary recalls.

Tom swung open the basement door. As he descended the staircase, he heard a hissing sound, "like the sound you hear when you are inside a house and someone outside has turned on a sprinkler to water the grass." But Tom says he didn't smell anything unusual.

He walked to the corner of the basement, reaching up to pull the chain that would turn on a light. Mary and Mulligan were still on the basement stairs. The door at the top of the stairs remained ajar. Tom pulled the chain.

Immediately there was a huge explosion. For Tom, it seemed as though "the floodlights at Busch Stadium" had been switched on directly in front of him. Mary saw the flash, then a huge orange fireball heading straight toward her. The blast knocked her off her feet and down onto the stairs. Mary felt as if the sun had dropped from the sky and onto her, pressing a thousand hot irons into her flesh.

Tom was at the epicenter of the explosion, and his forehead, arms, legs and back were instantly burned. He dropped to the ground in a fetal position as the house lifted off its foundation and the gas meter was blown from the wall.

Covered with debris and glass, Mary pulled herself up from the steps and discovered that her fingernails, always meticulously manicured and polished, were on fire. She tried to blow them out, but they kept reigniting. The buttons on her blouse were burning; the entire house was on fire.

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