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 at www.campaspenews.com.au and in Wednesday’s Riverine Herald.