Dorothy Walton was on the phone with a neighbor Friday afternoon complaining of an awful odor in her home when the house exploded without warning, killing her instantly.
Police and firefighters swarmed for hours over the smoky scene at 3249 S. West Temple, where little more than a skeleton of the house was left."It's like a war zone out here," said Mayor Randy Fitts.
The explosion and subsequent fire shot glass shards across the street, charred trees, destroyed two cars and scorched a neighboring home.
Wanda Jennings, who lives two doors north of 75-year-old Walton, said she had been talking to Walton when she heard an explosion that rattled her home about 2:40 p.m.
"She told me she smelled something funny and asked me if I could smell it," Jennings said. "Then I heard the boom."
"I'm going outside," Jennings said into the dead receiver before running outdoors, where her friend's home was in flames.
Walton, a widow, lived alone.
Workers from Finco Brothers of Salt Lake City might have triggered the explosion by striking a service line beneath West Temple, Fitts said.
Gas from the damaged line backed up into Walton's home, hit a pilot light and exploded, said South Salt Lake fire Capt. John Nash.
"It was like a blowtorch coming from the meter area," Nash said.
Nash said road crews should have been aware of where the gas lines were located.
Finco had subcontracted with Wadsworth Brothers Construction of Draper on a road and waterline improvement project. Wadsworth was handling major concrete replacement in the area while Finco was replacing waterlines.
Questions of liability arose even before the cause was firmly established.
"The city is pretty well insured because it's a subcontractor of a contractor," said Fitts, adding that City Hall made sure Wadsworth and Finco were properly bonded before contracts were awarded.
"I don't see the city as being responsible," said City Attorney Kevin Wadkins, who indicated liability probably lies with Wads-worth, Finco or Mountain Fuel.
Officials of Wadsworth and Finco could not be reached for comment.
"I think it was the gas company's fault," said Gay Lynn Heller, Walton's granddaughter. "It was negligence on its part."
Heller said there was some question whether the site and underground lines were properly marked at the site the crews were digging.
Louise Jacobsen, spokeswoman for Mountain Fuel, said the area was clearly marked with yellow paint, indicating an active fuel line.
"They took a broom and swept the street after the fire," Jacobsen said. "The yellow lines were there, clear as a bell."
She said Mountain Fuel has no policy requiring its supervisors to oversee construction sites. But Jacobsen noted the utility has a well-known program that marks gas lines at the public's request.
"That is the purpose of the Blue Stakes program," she said. "These people are trained and should know what they are doing."
Fitts said family members were deeply shaken by the incident.
"One of the grandchildren just happened to visit her grandmother today and was visibly, visibly, visibly upset," he said.
After being called to the scene from her job, Heller learned from a neighbor that her grandmother likely did not make it out.
"I was really close to her," a tearful Heller said. "I just can't believe it."
"There was a dog and cat in there, too," Duke Brian, Walton's son-in-law, said. "She lived by herself and was very independent. She sure as h--- would have walked or run out of there if she could."
After the explosion, Derek Rasmussen, who works at a business across the street, and another man ran to the house, looked in the windows and went through the kitchen looking for survivors seconds before the home was engulfed in fire.
"Nobody answered," Rasmussen said. "We couldn't see anything. It was really weird, like in a dream."