WEST HAVEN, CT (WFSB) – Two people were killed and three were injured following an explosion on the West Haven Veterans Affairs campus Friday morning.
It happened around 8 a.m. in the basement of a building on the campus, where crews were working on replacing a steam pipe.
Officials said a VA employee, who was a U.S. Navy veteran, and a contractor from Mulvaney Mechanical were replacing the pipe.
When the blast occurred, the pipe was filled with steam.
Both men were killed, and three other VA employees were injured.
The identifications have not yet been released.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal was the first to confirm the deaths to Channel 3.
There’s been a large police presence at the campus all day. The VA hospital is located on Campbell Avenue, but it appears the blast happened in a building located in the Crest Street area.
The FBI is involved, along with detectives from the CT State Police Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit, and OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Detectives from the FEIU were dispatched to 950 Campbell Ave in West Haven to assist local fire marshals with a reported explosion. Please contact @WestHaven_PD for any further details regarding this active and ongoing investigation.
— CT State Police (@CT_STATE_POLICE) November 13, 2020
While administrators at the VA say it seems like an accident, they said there will be a lengthy investigation to find out just what went wrong and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I can’t tell you how hard of a day it has been here at VA CT Health Care System. It is a really rough day for all of our employees and staff here out of the 3,500 dedicated employees. This has been a hard one,” said Alfred Montoya, Medical Center director for VA Connecticut.
Gov. Ned Lamont provided a statement just before noon on Friday.
“State emergency management officials are actively working with local and federal officials to respond to the explosion that occurred this morning at the West Haven VA Medical Center and will continue to provide as much aid as necessary to conduct an investigation. Early indications are that this appears to have been caused by a steam pipe,” Lamont said. “At this time we can confirm that there have been two deaths, and our hearts go out to their families and colleagues at the VA center. This is a heartbreaking tragedy, and I have instructed our state agencies to provide full resources as the response and investigation continues.”
The Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs also extended condolences.
“The Leadership and Staff of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) are deeply saddened by the tragic accident at the Federal VA in West Haven and extend our condolences and prayers to the families of the victims and to our Federal colleagues who continue to care for Connecticut’s Veterans,” said DVA Commissioner Thomas J. Saadi.
State Sen. James Maroney offered condolences to the families of those impacted by what happened.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost their life in the explosion at the VA [Friday],” Maroney said. “I have nothing but gratitude and appreciation for the first responders who are on hand dealing with the situation as we wait to find out what caused the explosion.”
Sen. Chris Murphy said he was closely monitoring the situation.
“My heart goes out to those affected and I stand ready to assist local and federal officials as we learn more,” Murphy said.
I am closely monitoring the situation at the West Haven VA following the explosion this morning. My heart goes out to those affected and I stand ready to assist local and federal officials as we learn more.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) November 13, 2020
Congressman Joe Courtney released a statement on Friday saying “I am praying for all of those injured and involved in the explosion that occurred at the West Haven VA Medical Center this morning. My heart goes out to the VA center staff, our veterans, and all of the families who were impacted by this tragedy. My office and I are in touch with VA officials and local authorities as they continue to work to conduct an investigation, and we are monitoring the situation closely.”
A History of the West Haven VA Medical Center
The VA hospital is decades old.
While it’s unclear if there’s a connection to the facility’s age and what happened Friday morning, many said this hospital is beyond its shelf life.
The West Haven VA Medical Center takes care of about 58,000 veterans across Connecticut.
Just Friday morning, VA officials said its occupancy hovered around 85 percent, but the building’s infrastructure is aging.
“As many of you know, this campus was built in the 40s, 50s and so it is a constant uphill battle to maintain the infrastructure,” Montoya said.
The VA hospital received a facelift when crews placed an exterior shell over the existing bricks.
Officials say this may have been in the 1990s.
“I think it’s important to note that we don’t know what happened. It may be there’s a connection to the age of the facility and what happened today, but we don’t know that today,” Murphy said.
What is known, says Senator Richard Blumenthal, is it’s time to build a new VA hospital.
Both Blumenthal and Murphy sit on the Appropriations and Veterans’ Affairs committees.
“I can tell you here after visiting many times, this tragedy is an indication that this building is past its sell-by date,” Blumenthal said. “The mechanics that were involved in this repair are an important factor in the tragedy.”
This VA hospital is actually on a list to be replaced but that hasn’t happened yet.
Senators Murphy and Blumenthal pledged to get the ball moving, not just here, but at so many other aging VA hospitals.