Gas leak led to ho­tel ex­plo­sion


AN EX­PLO­SION which killed two men at the Rochester Ho­tel was prob­a­bly caused by the com­bi­na­tion of a gas leak and a cig­a­rette lighter, a coroner’s court has heard.

Barry Purtell, 34, and Dave Lobb, 52, died af­ter at­tempt­ing to re­move a re­frig­er­a­tion unit in the cel­lar of the ho­tel on June 15, 2014.

A coro­nial in­quest into their deaths opened in Bendigo yes­ter­day, where ev­i­dence was pre­sented de­tail­ing the build-up to the fa­tal in­ci­dent.

The court heard the ex­plo­sion oc­curred while Mr Purtell and Mr Lobb were re­mov­ing the fi­nal items from the pub, which had shut its doors the pre­vi­ous night.

Wayne Con­way, whose wife Denise owned the pub, told the Coroner’s Court in Bendigo the men of­fered to help re­move the fridge.

“Barry was go­ing to do the fridge and I asked him if it was an easy job,” Mr Con­way said.

“He said to me: ‘Yes, it’s a piece of piss mate’.

“I also asked Dave if it was easy and he said: ‘Yeah mate, it’s easy’.”

Mr Con­way said he then left the ho­tel for be­tween 20 and 30 min­utes, re­turn­ing at about 1.30pm – moments af­ter the ex­plo­sion.

He told the court how Mr Purtell hero­ically poured wa­ter over Mr Lobb in an ef­fort to help him, de­spite be­ing crit­i­cally in­jured him­self.

“Bruce was stand­ing up. I hadn’t con­sid­ered he was in­jured at that stage,” Mr Con­way said.

“But then I saw him on the bench and his in­juries were shock­ing.”

The court heard the re­frig­er­a­tion unit had to be topped up with gas – a job per­formed by Mr Purtell in late 2013 – in­di­cat­ing there was a leak.

But there was no gas sen­sor in the cel­lar and the only mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem present de­tected car­bon diox­ide in the air.

Phil Wilkin­son, a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer rep­re­sent­ing the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Re­frig­er­a­tion, Air Con­di­tion­ing and Heat­ing, told the court re­frig­er­ant gases were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly flammable as the in­dus­try moved away from us­ing syn­thetic green­house gases.

There was no safety sig­nage in the cel­lar at the time of the in­ci­dent warn­ing of the dan­gers of flammable gases, nor was there a fire ex­tin­guisher.

Un­der ques­tion­ing from coroner Paresa Spanos, Mr Con­way said he did not doubt Mr Purtell and Mr Lobb’s abil­ity to safely re­move the fridge, even though they lacked spe­cific qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

“In my eyes they were qual­i­fied,” he said.

“They were both trades­men and handy boys. They could turn their hands to any­thing.” The in­quest continues to­day. Up­dates on the in­quiry will ap­pear on­line at­paspe­ and in Wed­nes­day’s River­ine Her­ald.

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