'I couldn’t save him this time': Father of Richmond Hill explosion victim on mission to improve home safety

Courtesy: State v. Mark Leonard - 71D02-1408-MR-000009 - State's Exhibit 5
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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — It’s a night the Richmond Hill neighborhood will never forget. Emergency radio traffic between first responders told only part of the story that night.

“We have extensive damage to a lot of houses along this area and we’ve got a lot of frantic people back here,” one first responder could be heard reporting. Dozens of people were injured while homes collapsed and caught fire when a home exploded in the center of the southern Indianapolis neighborhood.

“We’ve got one house down. We have two others severely damaged,” another first responder said over the radio.

Investigators would later determine that the explosion turned out to be all part of an elaborate insurance fraud scheme, triggered by tampering with the home’s gas lines. In the house next to where the explosion occurred, 36-year-old Jennifer Longworth died in the initial blast. Her husband survived the explosion, but couldn’t get out of the rubble.

“We’ve got a man trapped in the back. We need the hoses back here now to protect it, so we can get him out,” yelled one fireman over the radio that night.

That man, trapped in the back, was Dion Longworth. Firefighters couldn’t rescue him that night. “The fireman that had been with Dion described how he started, he saw the hose and he grabbed it and turned around, but it was too late,” said Dion’s father, John Longworth.

“The flames had come down and swallowed Dion,” Longworth added, choking up as he sat in Yats, Dion’s favorite restaurant. Longworth comes here to remember the good times. The tears follow, though, when he thinks about how he couldn’t protect his only son that night. “I couldn’t save him this time,” said Longworth, shaking his head, but believes natural gas safety devices could have.

At the trial of Mark Leonard, considered to be the explosion’s mastermind, Citizens Energy Group testified it took more than two hours to shut off gas to the neighborhood. One firefighter testified he couldn’t get to Dion because he had to keep fighting flames that kept re-igniting from the natural gas.

“To think of this fellow that had the courage to think, ‘Well I can, I’ve got a suit on, I can get this hose back there to save this man,’ but because there was not,” Longworth paused, slamming his fist on the table, choking back tears, “because there was not a gas valve that would shut it off, there was gas escaping and stopping the fireman from doing his job,” he said.

Natural Gas Safety Valves

Those kinds of devices do exist. They’re called excess flow valves (EFV). EFV’s have a spring that shuts off gas flow when it detects too much gas coming through the service lines. EFVs are required under federal regulations in homes built since December 2009.

“I don’t know about saving his life, but I know it will shut the flow of gas off.”

The homes in Richmond Hill were built before then.

EFV’s can be retro-fitted into gas lines for older homes.

Gas companies can install the valves at the homeowner's expense.

It costs between $1500-$2000.

John Longworth wants Citizens Energy to retrofit homes built before 2009. He says he's offered to help the company develop a plan to install EFV’s in homes, but he says he was met with resistance. “The reply I got was they were one of the safest companies in the United States and that an excess flow valve would not have saved my son,” Longworth said of his efforts in speaking with the utility company.

What is an Excess Flow Valve?

  • An EFV is a safety valve connected to a home's natural gas line. It detects gas flow that exceeds certain limits.
  • A spring inside the valve is triggered to shut off gas flow
  • EFVs are required on gas lines of homes built after December 2009
  • Gas companies can retrofit older natural gas service lines with an EFV
  • Homeowners pay for the retrofit which costs an average of $2000.

Input from an Expert

“I don’t know about saving his life, but I know it will shut the flow of gas off,” said Sidney Thomas who has worked with gas utility companies for close to 25 years. He lived in Warren Township at the time of the Richmond Hill explosion. “I remember my house shaking,” said Thomas who has studied the Richmond Hill case and believes the responsibility for what happened lies with the people who created the explosion.

“You’re looking at an anomaly with a criminal act,” said Thomas, but he doesn’t dismiss Longworth’s idea that an EFV could have stopped the gas that night. “The excess flow valve would have shut the flow of that gas off after that pipe was severed,” said Thomas.

When asked if they thought an EFV would have made the difference for Dion Longworth, Citizens issued this statement:

“Out of respect for Mister Longworth, we don’t believe it is appropriate to speculate on the tragic deaths of his son Dion and daughter-in- law Jennifer due to criminal acts that occurred on November 10th 2012."

A Father's New Mission

John Longworth thinks all homes should have EFV’s. “I know it would cost some money to go back and retro fit, but how much is somebody’s life worth,” he asked.

Citizens Energy told Eyewitness News that since 2003, even before federal regulations required them, the company installed EFV’s on their gas lines to all new homes. Since that time, Citizens says it has installed close to 45,500 EFV’s.

Longworth thinks more can be done. His next step -asking state and federal lawmakers to get involved. “You don’t give up, you just keep pounding on doors,” said Longworth. He knows that’s what Dion would want him to do. “He would say, ‘Go get ‘em, dad. Do you need help?”