June 11. 2003 4:43AM

Fire chief stunned by find

1,300 gallons of gas in Thompson home

John Dignam

THOMPSON- East Thompson Fire Chief Edward Chrabaszcz says he was stunned to learn while talking with a homeowner Monday night after a minor fire at the home that the homeowner was storing 1,300 to 1,600 gallons of gasoline at the house, some within feet of firefighters.

"I was floored," Chief Chrabaszcz said. "That could have taken out the neighborhood. I have never seen anything like that.

"We had people in the basement. I got everybody out of there immediately, and we called Connecticut Light and Power and the Department of Environmental Protection," Chief Chrabaszcz said.

"We were all at least 500 feet away and, I'll tell you, nobody was smoking."

A flashover from spilled gasoline in the basement of the home of Daniel P. Donovan Sr. and Holly J. Donovan at 1088 Thompson Road caused a minor fire with a little bit of smoke about 5:30 p.m. Monday that Mr. Donovan was able to put out before firefighters arrived, according to Chief Chrabaszcz.

However, the flashover - exploding gasoline vapors - lifted the house from its foundation, blew a basement door through a wall, moved the chimney six inches, and caused severe structural damage, the chief said.

He said the interior of the small Cape-style house was destroyed.

The chief said Mr. Donovan suffered a small scratch on his head from flying debris. Mrs. Donovan and three cats were not injured. The couple are staying with friends.

"He's lucky to be here to talk about it," Chief Chrabaszcz said of Mr. Donovan.

He said Mr. Donovan was "embarrassed, scared" and gradually told the chief about the stored gasoline as they discussed the fire.

According to the chief, Mr. Donovan had adapted the furnace to heat the house with a mixture of gasoline and oil. He said three 275-gallon drums in the basement contained gasoline, as well as containers beside the house and in the garage.

He said Mr. Donovan had wiped up some spilled gasoline in the basement Monday and gone upstairs. A spark, possibly from a light being switched on or the furnace starting, ignited the vapors.

Chief Chrabaszcz said only the vapors from the spill exploded. But, he said, all of the gasoline had the potential to explode.

He said using gasoline to heat a private, single-family home was legal in Connecticut "because it was a single-family home and you can pretty much do what you want to do in your own house. If it were a two-family house, though, that would have been a different matter."

He said he did not know what Massachusetts laws were in regard to such action in a single-family home.

Contacted last night, Charlton Fire Chief Ralph W. Harris Sr. was incredulous that anyone would use gasoline in a furnace.

"It's against the law (in Massachusetts). You can't use gasoline in a furnace. You just don't do it," he said.

Chief Chrabaszcz said, "I have never seen this amount of gasoline" at a home. "You just never know today what people are going to do, what's in your neighbor's house. We've gone to a trailer fire, put out the fire and found there was a keg of black powder (used to make bullets) by the door.

"People store pool chemicals, paint thinners, paints just a few feet from their furnaces. Everyone's guilty of that. And any type of ignition - turning on a kitchen light - could set it off.

"A five-gallon can of gasoline in the basement could do the same thing, although not to this extent," he said.

Chief Chrabaszcz said the incident was a sobering one for firefighters. "You're at the landowner's mercy. You're in harm's way, and you just don't know until after, and it could be too late. Hopefully, everything comes out all right."

He said one container in the Donovan basement was covered with debris. "But even if we saw it, it was an oil drum and you would expect oil in it.

"People just do wrong things," he said, ""But it's done every day of the week."