Gary Thomas died doing something he did routinely: checking on empty houses while the owners were away.
The 68-year-old Homer resident had owned a business for nearly a decade caretaking properties to make sure pipes didn’t freeze or ensure other problems didn’t arise while they were unoccupied, said his widow, Laura Patty.
But when Thomas pressed a simple reset button on a frozen heating-system boiler in early January 2020, the machine exploded and killed him.
Now, in a settlement Patty reached in March with the Tennessee-based boiler manufacturing company, a new label next to the button will warn of the dangers of hitting reset in freezing conditions.
That was the goal of a civil lawsuit she filed in 2020 against Lochinvar LLC, the company that makes the boiler that killed her husband.
“No one should die from pressing a reset button,” Patty said. ”For us it wasn’t about collecting money — it wasn’t about that. It was about, this should not happen to anybody else.”
The case had been scheduled for trial this month. Lochinvar paid Patty an undisclosed amount of money during the settlement, but she said her main intention was to prevent further deaths or injuries.
Lochinvar did not return a message seeking comment for this article.
Thomas was checking on a friend’s home that January day when he discovered the house was frozen up and the boiler wasn’t running.
Attorney Myron Angstman, who represented Patty, said Thomas pressed the reset button on the boiler after a quick inspection of the house and garage, according to notes he made that were discovered later. The boiler, which apparently was frozen as well, managed to thaw some ice, but the water quickly turned to steam, creating extreme pressure in the boiler because it had no place to circulate.
The boiler exploded, killing Thomas and badly damaging the garage.
Nowhere on the boiler or in the manufacturer’s manual was there a warning about the dangers of restarting the machine when frozen, Patty said.
Under the terms of the settlement filed in Homer Superior Court, Lochinvar agreed to add labels that warn of dangerous freezing conditions to all of its boilers. The company has also revised its manual to include hazard information.
The new warning will be attached to all new boilers under the terms of the settlement. It specifically warns that if the appliance could be frozen, users should “immediately shut off power and gas” and contact the factory for further instructions. “Operation when the heat exchanger, internal pipes or pressure relief valves are frozen will result in internal pressure buildup and a deadly steam explosion.”
Patty also requested the company create a lockout mechanism that would prevent the machine from being reset when frozen. The company has not made that change, and Angstman said there were questions surrounding the feasibility of designing such a mechanism.
Boiler explosions are extremely rare, said Joe Dudley of Diamond Heating in Anchorage. But many machines do include warning labels with information about the risk of explosion and carbon monoxide poisoning, he said. The machines often have a lockout system that doesn’t allow it to be turned on if it’s too hot, but Dudley said he didn’t know of any that had reverse cool lockout systems.
Thomas’ obituary called him Homer’s “public-spirited master of ceremonies” and said his death left “a hole in the community where he was the affable auctioneer for every nonprofit and good cause.”
Thomas also was the town’s longest-serving volunteer firefighter, supervised the annual health fair and served as general manager of the public radio station, publisher of the weekly newspaper and “guest pronouncer at countless school spelling bees,” his obituary said.
Patty said her husband was known as “the Voice of Homer” for his weekly radio show.
About 800 people packed into Mariner Theatre for his memorial service, she said. The crowd spilled out of the 500-seat theater, so the service was streamed for the standing-room crowd in the entrance.
“He was a big man in our little community,” Patty said.
She said she plans to donate a bulk of the settlement proceeds back to Homer organizations that her husband loved.
“I’m contacting people now to do that,” Patty said, “And I have to tell you — I feel like Santa Claus saying, ‘We’ve got this money for you on behalf of Gary, and we’d really love for you to do something worthwhile with it that will leave a legacy for him.’ ”