Copper theft blamed for house explosion


August 29, 2007

A thief who stripped copper tubing from a propane tank is blamed for a gas buildup and house explosion that severely burned an 80-year-old Onawa man, authorities said Wednesday.

Earl Thelander suffered third-degree burns over nearly half his body in Tuesday’s blast. Investigators say the gas buildup was linked to the disappearance of the tubing, which has increasingly been the target of so-called “urban miners” who hope to cash in on the high price of certain scrap metals.

The thief who hit Thelander’s rural home “maybe got $15 worth of copper,” Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt said. “They cut the propane line going to the furnace of the house in an attempt to steal the copper.”

Pratt said Thelander discovered the theft Tuesday and tried to air out the house, which he uses for rental income. He went to the basement and plugged in a fan, which investigators say likely sparked the explosion.

“It blew out one wall and bowed another one,” Pratt said. “But Earl walked out of there.”

The thief got away with 25 to 40 feet of copper tubing. Scrap metal prices have climbed in recent years due to increased demand in countries such as India and China.

“This just totally bowled people over that someone would do something menacing like this,” Onawa’s mayor, Rebecca Tanner, said. “It’s one thing to steal copper water pipes. But to steal copper gas pipes is beyond comprehension. This caused a tremendous explosion. Everyone knows how dangerous gas can be. Everyone in town who knows about this is amazed, startled and outraged.”

Thelander tried to use his cell phone to call for help but it apparently was rendered inoperable in the blast.

“He drove himself back into town and to the hospital,” Pratt said. “He is really a remarkable guy.”

Thelander was later moved to an Omaha hospital with specialized burn unit.

Pratt said there have been few relatively copper thefts reported in Monona County.

“Counties to the south have had this problem,” he said. “Now we’ve got it — in a major way.”


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Reader Comment
Posted by: jsnmlk on Thu Aug 30, 2007 4:11 am
According to NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) propane can be ran through copper tubing. One thing is propane is heavier than air so it going to settle to the lowest point. His best bet would have been to set the fan outside and vent through a window out another window.

I hope when they catch this “entrepreneur(s)”(about as bad as calling it “urban mining”), they charge them with not only B&E but attempted murder, because taking the copper could be considered gross negligence. If the vicitm would pass way from his injuries (I hope he makes a full recovery) it should be considered murder 1 because it was premeidated.

Most scrap yards don’t care
Posted by: Matt on Thu Aug 30, 2007 12:01 am
I was selling some scrap copper a few weeks ago. I saw a couple of rolls of brand new wire. It was the bare solid copper wire we use for grounding electrical services to ground rods and water mains. Nice and neat rolls of bare copper wire. The theives just took the spools apart and they were left with rolled up bare copper wire.

I pointed out to the yard that it was totally hot wire. I knew you couldn’t prove it. But they needed to point this out to the cops.

I called a tropper I know and he told me which cop to talk to. The yard remembered what town the scum was from. I passed all of this on.

The cop later told me that they had the cops in the scum’s home town watching him as well.

I haven’t heard anything – what I saw wouldn’t do any good in court anyway – but hopefully they’ll get some of the scum of of the street.

Reader Comment
Posted by: hoopdwalawala on Wed Aug 29, 2007 7:09 pm
Fill the ‘miner’s’ home with propane then hand him a full crack pipe. That’ll resolve him in very short time.

Reader Comment
Posted by: spiceycurry on Wed Aug 29, 2007 6:58 pm
Boy, that is acryin’ shame. But what a tough Old Cat. I hope he recovers.

Theft -not mining
Posted by: cav-tanker on Wed Aug 29, 2007 5:14 pm
It would be nice if the Register would call it like it is. It is not Urban Mining- it is Breaking and entering along with larcency or theft. The term Urban Mining just tries to justify the theft or criminal trespass.

Hope they can throw the book at this jerk. Better yet – let him plug in the fan and then fry. You would never want to be burned again if you have been severely burnt before. It is a pain that doesn’t go away unless it gets to third degree.

Please start using the proper term instead of glorifying the crooks.

Reader Comment
Posted by: JJCDAD on Wed Aug 29, 2007 4:20 pm
I think there needs to be something done to make it harder for the crack heads to redeem scrap metal. Maybe some kind of requirement that folks who want to get cash for metal have to put down a sizeable deposit with the scrap yard. That deposit could then be refunded once the customer has demonstrated a history of legitimate transactions.

Posted by: fz1 on Wed Aug 29, 2007 3:22 pm
When you plug anything into an outlet there is a minute amount of spark…………..guessing he has figured that out now!

Reader Comment
Posted by: thor on Wed Aug 29, 2007 3:14 pm
I think they mean in a major way because now thieves are moving from pipes that cause minor inconviences to now to taking items that could possibly destroy a house. I’m pretty sure you would be awfuly upset if someone did this to you and then got charged with just petty theft.

There was another article just a couple weeks ago about people stealing catylitic converters from cars and selling then for around $30-$40, and then leaving the victim to purchase a new one for a couple hundred.

Also, hopefully he has good insurance because you know even if they catch the crack head who did this they won’t be able to get any money from him.

Reader Comment
Posted by: slycotton82 on Wed Aug 29, 2007 2:56 pm
3rd degree burns on half his body and he drove himself to the hospital? That is one tough 80 year old man!

Reader Comment
Posted by: missm on Wed Aug 29, 2007 2:48 pm
…in a major way – I suspect they meant because of the house explosion. That’s pretty major.

Also, I’m pretty sure that it is against plumbing code to run gas through copper lines. It is for natural gas anyway, not so sure about propane.

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