Courts

Dallas Firefighters Sue Over Injuries Sustained During Apartment Explosion

Dallas Fire-Rescue, the Dallas Police Department, the Railroad Commission of Texas and Atmos all conducted their own investigations into what caused this apartment building to explode.
Dallas Fire-Rescue, the Dallas Police Department, the Railroad Commission of Texas and Atmos all conducted their own investigations into what caused this apartment building to explode. Avi Adelman
Three Dallas firefighters are suing Atmos Energy and the owners and managers of the Highland Hills apartment complex, which exploded last year because of a gas leak. Each of them suffered severe injuries from the explosion – injuries they’re still dealing with today – and their attorneys say it was all preventable.

They’re looking to get more than $1 million from Atmos and the apartment complex owners for their medical expenses, lost wages, permanent injuries and other damages. The firefighters are also suing to get $100 million in damages from Atmos and the apartment complex, saying their "gross negligence" created the circumstances for the explosion.

“This pattern of unsafe, hazardous practices must stop,” Brant J. Stogner, the firefighters’ lead attorney, said in a statement. “The lives of three firefighters – public servants – were forever changed by this explosion.”

Atmos, as well as the apartment complex and its owners – Mountain Creek Apts., LP, Odin Properties, Odin Management – did not respond to requests for comment. In October, the apartment complex and the owners also declined to answer questions about maintenance problems and previous reports of natural gas odors residents mentioned to the Observer.

During a shooting in the area the night before the explosion, a bullet struck a gas line inside one of the units at the Highland Hills Apartments in southern Dallas. Natural gas filled unit 129 overnight and into the next day.

On Sept. 29, Dallas firefighters Capt. Christopher Gadomski, Engineer Ronald Hall and Officer Pauline Perez arrived initially thinking they had a carbon monoxide leak on their hands. When they got there, employees with the apartment complex and the management company used a drill to remove the doorknob of the unit to get inside, instead of opening the door with a master key.

They opened the door and found a line was still leaking natural gas. The gas supply hadn’t been shut off and the apartment building was still full of people.

Perez entered the unit with a self-contained breathing apparatus to find where the leak was coming from and see if anyone was injured. Gadomski and Hall were outside looking for the main service line so they could shut off the gas.

Suddenly, the building exploded. Perez, Gadomski and Hall suffered severe burns and catastrophic injuries, according to their lawsuit. Three residents were also injured and taken to the hospital. All survived.

"The Highland Hills Apartment complex and its gas system became a ticking time bomb waiting to explode." – Brant J. Stogner, attorney

tweet this
A preliminary investigation concluded there was a domestic violence incident the night before and that one of the people involved fired off a few rounds near the apartment. Authorities say that's likely what caused the leak.

The person who allegedly fired the shot was arrested for causing the leak, but the firefighters and their attorneys contend this is not what caused the explosion.

The Texas Railroad Commission did its own investigation and found an unregistered natural gas meter system that was being operated by the apartment complex and its managers.

This unregistered system didn’t meet minimum federal and state standards. For example, safety policies like timely leak detection weren’t implemented on the system. A hazard analysis also wasn’t conducted on the system, and the complex didn’t implement an emergency plan in the event of a leak or do enough to keep trespassers off the property. The suit also claims the apartment complex and management didn’t get qualified people to fix leaks on the property, they didn’t inspect their system or do preventative maintenance, and they could have installed more equipment to mitigate the risk of a leak and explosion.

On top of the allegedly unsafe gas system, the apartment complex and its owners didn’t do enough to quell crime on the property, the firefighters claim.

The city had already designated the Highland Hills Apartments and its sister location, Mountain Creek, as common nuisances before the explosion. It did so because management allegedly didn’t secure the property or minimize gun violence at the complexes.

In December 2020, the owner of the complexes agreed to implement minimum security standards at the two locations for one year. This agreement required increased security personnel on the property around the clock, additional measures to prevent trespassing, 24-hour monitored video surveillance and immediate reporting to Dallas Police of criminal activity.

The suit says the complexes and its management didn’t comply with these safety standards, they failed to prevent active gun violence and didn’t investigate criminal activity in a timely manner. The agreement was still in effect when the explosion happened.

Atmos Energy supplied the natural gas to the apartment complex, and it appears the company was unaware of the unregistered system, the suit says. The company made several repairs to the system after other leak reports, including leaks caused by gunfire. Atmos filed an incident report with the Rail Road Commissioner listing itself as the gas operator for the complex. That report was later withdrawn, but the firefighters and their attorneys argue this demonstrates the company didn’t know who it was providing gas to and did not keep accurate safety records.
click to enlarge The explosion at the Highland Hills Apartments, injured firefighters and residents, and displaced hundreds of others. - JACOB VAUGHN
The explosion at the Highland Hills Apartments, injured firefighters and residents, and displaced hundreds of others.
Jacob Vaughn
The suit also alleges that Atmos should have made sure the system was registered with the state or that the complex was abiding by minimum state and federal requirements. Atmos knew the risks of a gas explosion, the lawsuit said.

The building was demolished before midnight the day it exploded. Gas wasn’t restored until three weeks later because there were other leaks and code violations on the property. Three months after the explosion, Atmos was back at the Highland Hills Apartments because the master meter system was leaking natural gas again.

The firefighters and their attorneys say the explosion was preventable.

Stogner said, “As a result of years of ignoring safety, ignoring crime, and failing to comply with minimum state and federal requirements, the Highland Hills Apartment complex and its gas system became a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.”

Perez had second-and third-degree burns on her hands, arms, legs, ears and face. She had to be admitted to the ICU and required care from the burn unit at Parkland Hospital. She had to go through multiple surgeries, including skin grafts. Perez was released from the hospital and is now relearning how to use her hands while the skin grafts heal. She’ll continue needing medical treatment for the injuries she sustained the day of the explosion.

Hall had second-and third-degree burns covering 40% of his body, including his face, head, arms and legs. His right leg was also severely fractured and required emergency surgery. Hall was in the ICU at Parkland for five days, admitted to the burn unit for three weeks and went through two weeks of in-patient rehab.

He’s since been through multiple surgeries and will require long-term treatment for his injuries.

The force of the explosion launched Gadomski through two building walls, breaking bones in his legs. He was hospitalized for six weeks and required multiple surgeries on both legs. Today, Gadomski’s legs are in constant pain, his lawyers said, and he continues to require therapy and surgeries.

“Captain Gadomski, Engineer Hall, and Officer Perez dedicated their lives to service, and it is unclear whether any of them will ever be physically able to return to firefighting,” Stogner said. “Their injuries from the explosion are permanent, but they were preventable.”
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn