Lawsuit: Deadly fire was caused by natural-gas water heater

An Everett woman, 87, died in the 2019 fire. The lawsuit claims Puget Sound Energy rarely inspected the home’s gas lines.

The gas flow control valve, which plaintiffs say was severely corroded. (Court documents)

The gas flow control valve, which plaintiffs say was severely corroded. (Court documents)

EVERETT — The family of an elderly Everett woman killed in a 2019 house fire is suing Puget Sound Energy and others, alleging her death was preventable if not for the negligence of the state’s largest natural gas provider.

Josefa Starbuck was killed in the two-alarm April 2019 fire off Mukilteo Boulevard. She was 87. Her daughter, Marilyn, was seriously injured. The home on Shore Avenue, built in 1948, was a total loss. Damages were estimated to be over $700,000, according to the lawsuit.

The family had a new water heater installed five years before the fire. Puget Sound Energy supplied the natural gas to fuel it, according to the family’s lawsuit filed last week in Snohomish County Superior Court.

In early 2020, one of the f amily’s lawyers, Scott Carness, and others started investigating the fire’s origins. They found the natural gas fuel contained excessive water, the family alleges. The “wet gas” entered the gas flow control valve, causing severe corrosion. That stopped the valves from closing properly. The gas kept flowing. Then nearby floor planks ignited.

The valve was taken to a New York lab for testing. It “looked like it had been brought up from the Titanic,” Carness told The Daily Herald.

Carness called it a “ticking time bomb.”

“Basically, it blew up,” he said.

PSE owned the water heater and was responsible for its maintenance, the lawsuit claims. The private utility first brought gas lines to the home in 1972. But it rarely, if ever, inspected the gas lines or leased appliances, like the water heater, the family alleges. And PSE reportedly didn’t allow the Starbuck family to repair the appliances themselves.

Foam streaked a driveway hours after a fire in a home killed an elderly woman and injured her adult daughter in 2019 in Everett. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)

Foam streaked a driveway hours after a fire in a home killed an elderly woman and injured her adult daughter in 2019 in Everett. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)

On April 25, 2019, Charles Starbuck was taking a shower in the Everett home. When he pulled open the shower curtain, he found thick, dark smoke coming from the floor, according to the lawsuit. There was a fire coming from the basement.

Marilyn Starbuck was asleep in her room in the basement. She awoke to the sound of fire outside her door. She opened the door and tried to crawl across the basement floor to the stairs. As she moved, she saw flames coming from the bottom of the water heater, the lawsuit states.

By the time she got up the stairs, her body was engulfed in flames. She got out of the house and rolled on the grass to extinguish them.

Meanwhile, Josefa Starbuck was trapped inside. A neighbor heard screaming and tried to rescue her. He was able to grasp her hand, but the smoke was too much.

About 50 firefighters and medics from Everett, Mukilteo, Marysville, South County Fire and Naval Station Everett converged on the neighborhood, The Herald reported at the time.

First responders found Josefa Starbuck in the bedroom. Charles and Josefa had been married for 60 years, having met on a blind date in England in 1958. They eventually moved to Everett, where he worked as an emergency room doctor.

Everett firefighters at a residential fire that killed Josefa Starbuck, 87, in 2019. (Everett Fire Department)

Everett firefighters at a residential fire that killed Josefa Starbuck, 87, in 2019. (Everett Fire Department)

“They’re devastated,” Carness said. “They are broken.”

The family fears other PSE customers could face a similar fate.

In 2021, PSE reported over 151,000 natural gas customers in Snohomish County. Statewide, that number tops 900,000.

Bradford White manufactured the water heater. A gas flow control valve was made by Honeywell International. Both are also defendants in the lawsuit.

PSE and Bradford White declined to comment because the litigation is pending.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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