Cracked gas main blamed for house explosion that killed woman

A house explosion which killed a woman as she was on a video call to her partner is likely to have been caused by a cracked gas main, an inquest has heard.

Hazel Wilcock, 61, died when her terraced home was destroyed by the blast in the village of Summerseat in Ramsbottom, Bury, just before 9.30pm on Wednesday February 17.

An inquest at Rochdale Coroner’s Court on Thursday heard Miss Wilcock, a bereavement counsellor for St Ann’s Hospice, had been on a Facetime call with her boyfriend Tony Dewes when he saw the screen go black at about 9.15pm.

Miss Wilcock’s brother Graham, 70, said he heard the explosion from his apartment, about 100 metres away, and when he was unable to contact his sister he went out towards her house on East View.

He said: “It was flat.

“There was nothing there, you could see straight through it.”

Hazel Wilcock (St Anne's Hospice/PA)
Hazel Wilcock (St Ann’s Hospice/PA)

The hearing was told Ms Wilcock’s body was found on the sofa in the front room by search crews at about 3am on February 18.

Her cause of death was recorded as traumatic asphyxia.

Mr Wilcock, who thanked the emergency services for their response, said: “I just still can’t believe it has happened and I miss her, I miss her terribly.”

The inquest heard Miss Wilcock’s next door neighbour, who was taken to hospital along with her daughter after the blast, later told police she had smelt gas at about 9pm.

Engineer Steven Critchlow, from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), said the most likely cause of the explosion was a gas leak from a cast iron main pipe 35 metres away from the house, which had permeated through the soil and into the basement of Ms Wilcock’s home.

The coroner’s court heard the fuel was likely to have been ignited by a washing machine or chest freezer in the cellar.

Mr Critchlow said: “We have been able to rule out every cause other than a failed gas main at the bottom of the road.

“We know that gas was permeating through the soil from that failed gas main and we know that gas had got into the cellars of properties so my conclusion is that this is an incident caused by the failure of a cast iron main.”

The remains of the property (Peter Byrne/PA)
The remains of the property (Peter Byrne/PA)

HSE inspector Ian Redshaw said the fractured pipe, which had a crack about two thirds of the way round, was located by gas company Cadent after the explosion.

He said cast iron pipes in the gas network were being replaced as part of a 30-year programme across the country, which began in 2002, but the main in this case had not been scored as a high priority for replacement.

He said: “Cast iron is a very strong material but it is a brittle material as well and there have been and continue to be a number of failures of cast iron pipes within the gas networks.”

Detective Inspector Alison Witkiewicz told the inquest she had considered whether any criminal offences had been committed but there was nothing that met the threshold for a prosecution.

Senior coroner for Manchester North Joanne Kearsley recorded a conclusion of accidental death.

Addressing a number of Miss Wilcock’s friends and relatives who had attended the hearing, she said: “She sounds like, both professionally and personally, quite a remarkable lady.”