Burned man might have been witness to Lexington house explosion

A man who was treated at a hospital for burns is considered a witness to the explosion of a house on Campbell Street early Monday, a fire official said Tuesday.

A copper thief might have knocked over a water heater in the vacant house, breaking a gas line and leading to the explosion, fire officials said Monday.

The burned man was interviewed Monday afternoon after neighbors told fire investigators he hung around the area and the house that exploded.

"We are not naming him as a suspect or anything else," said fire department Maj. Ed Davis Tuesday morning. The man might have been near the house when it exploded.

Davis said the man told fire investigators when they first spoke with him that he had been treated at a hospital and didn't want any more treatment.

But apparently that changed later Monday night.

Davis said the man was taken back to the hospital after he went to a nearby house seeking food. The owner of that house called an ambulance.

Initially, no one was thought to be injured when the house at 457 Campbell Street, near Transylvania University, exploded before 1 a.m. Monday, sending wood, drywall and debris flying.

Davis said Monday the airborne gas burned away in an instant, and there was only a small fire when firefighters arrived.

The thief or thieves apparently cut off the pipe and valve that feeds water into the top of the water heater over the weekend. Then they tipped over the water heater.

"When they did that, it looks like it tore out the flex hose" that feeds gas to the water heater's heating elements, Davis said.

The house was vacant, and neighbors told fire officials that a squatter had been staying there.

That led investigators to the man with the burns.

Citing federal privacy laws, Davis did not name the man or say how badly he was burned.

All he could say was that the man's injuries were not life-threatening.

The gas to the house had been shut off in June. It was turned back on Dec. 12, Columbia Gas spokeswoman Lisa Smith said. But the company didn't relight any gas appliances because there was no electric or water service at the house. The company did test the lines, and there were no leaks.