Family of PGW worker killed in blast still in pain

Peg Keeley and daughter Lauren Mazza wear necklaces with a photo of Mark Keeley, Peg's son and Lauren's brother. The family will receive nothing from a PUC settlement.
Peg Keeley and daughter Lauren Mazza wear necklaces with a photo of Mark Keeley, Peg's son and Lauren's brother. The family will receive nothing from a PUC settlement. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 23, 2013

Peg Keeley last saw her son alive 916 days ago - she keeps count - when Mark Keeley walked out the door of the family's Fox Chase home to work the evening shift at Philadelphia Gas Works. It was Jan. 18, 2011.

That cold winter's night, the 19-year-old gas worker was killed when natural gas from a cracked high-pressure main exploded, unleashing a fireball so powerful it destroyed two rowhouses on Torresdale Avenue in Tacony. Mark Keeley was just outside the chiropractor's office that blew up, drilling holes in the street to let gas trapped below the pavement escape. Five other PGW workers were injured.

It took rescuers nearly three hours to find Keeley's body, buried beneath the rubble. He had worked at PGW for only four months. His family identified him at the Medical Examiner's Office by a Gaelic tattoo on his calf.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved a settlement with PGW, assessing the maximum $500,000 penalty and requiring the utility to revise its procedures and retrain its employees. The Keeleys won't see a nickel of the PUC settlement, since the commission can only assess fines, not collect damages.

Some commissioners gave PGW a severe tongue-lashing. One called for the city to hasten efforts to sell the utility to private owners who might be more accountable.

For Peg Keeley, 49, who kept silent in public since the youngest of her three children died, the PUC settlement was only the latest insult. "I'm so angry," she said.

The PUC settlement triggered an upwelling of bitterness for her. She said she has experienced two years of unanswered questions, insensitivity, and evasion. PGW and the Gas Workers Union say they have tried to be supportive, while staying respectful of the family's grief.

At the heart of Peg Keeley's frustration is that there is nobody she can make pay for her son's death. Under the state Workers Compensation Act, the Keeleys can't sue the employer for wrongful death even though the PUC complaint implied PGW was negligent. They can't sue another city agency because government entities are immune from lawsuits.

A law firm investigated the incident inside and out, but came up empty: It was an 80-year-old corroded cast-iron main that cracked, and there was no evidence of recent construction or actions of surrounding property owners that might have caused the damage.

The law firm even looked at suing Peco Energy Co. for not shutting off electricity to the area - the explosion was triggered when a furnace switched on in a basement filled with natural gas. But nobody ever notified Peco about the leak before the blast, one of the procedures the PUC faulted.

"Unfortunately, after all this investigation, we cannot identify a viable defendant or a theory that we believe would work in this case," Daniel J. Mann, a lawyer with the Center City firm of Feldman Shepherd wrote to the Keeleys last October.

What's worse for the Keeleys, Peg's husband of 30 years, Thomas, still has to go to work every day at PGW, where he has been employed for two decades. His son had wanted to follow in his footsteps. "His sadness is very deep," Peg said about her husband.

"It's a rotten situation all around," said Thomas Keeley, 50, a pipe mechanic who moved from street duty to a workshop detail after the accident. "The PUC has resolved it. But nobody else has."

Peg Keeley says nobody from PGW's management team has explained to her what happened to her son. "PGW is not forthcoming," she said.

A spokesman for the Gas Workers Union, as well as the company, says that chief executive officer Craig White has offered to sit down with Peg Keeley and respond to her questions.

"We are ready, willing, and able to meet with Mrs. Keeley at any time and at any location," said Barry O'Sullivan, PGW's spokesman. "To the best of my knowledge, she has yet to decide if she will respond to this offer."

The Keeleys got a settlement from a PGW life-insurance policy, and PGW and the Gas Workers Union shared the cost of his funeral. And the Keeleys are careful not to blame their son's coworkers, many of whom have placed photographs of Mark Keeley on their desks as memorials to him. "We've gotten great support from the union," Thomas Keeley said.

The union holds an annual golf tournament that benefits a foundation the Keeley family set up to do charitable works in Mark's memory. The foundation spent $75,000 to rebuild the gymnasium floor at St. Cecelia's Elementary School, where Mark had gone to school and later coached, Peg Keeley said.

Some area legislators introduced a bill to add gas workers to a state law that provides up to a $100,000 death benefit for emergency first responders who die in the line of duty, such as police officers, firefighters, and National Guard members.

"What gas workers do is not dissimilar to what other first responders do," said State Rep. Brendan F. Boyle (D., Phila.), a cosponsor of the legislation. He hopes the bill will get a new impetus when the General Assembly reconvenes in September.

But if the law passes, the Keeleys would get no financial benefit. "All I can try to do to avenge my son's death is to make things better for the next one," Peg Keeley said.

What the family wants may be next to impossible, for somebody to admit blame - that Mark's death was more than an unfortunate accident, and that it was not his fault.

"We want people to take responsibility," said Lauren Mazza, 27, Mark's sister and the Keeleys' oldest child.

Last fall, she gave birth to her first child - the Keeleys' first grandchild.

Lauren and her husband named him Mark.

"I know that seems kind of weird, and at first it was hard calling him 'Mark,' " Peg said. "But this baby is bringing me out of my sadness."


Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947, @Maykuth or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

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