Prompted by a explosion that claimed the life of a young Fox Chase man in mid-January, some legislators from Northeast Philadelphia are sponsoring bills that will extend state death benefits to the survivors of municipal gas utility workers who die while responding to emergencies.
On Aug. 18, local lawmakers announced the bills introduced in the state House and Senate. The measures were prompted by the death of Mark Keeley, 19, a Philadelphia Gas Works employee who died when leaking natural gas ignited at Torresdale Avenue and Disston Street in Tacony on Jan. 18.
State law currently provides for death benefit payments of $100,000 to the survivors of law enforcement officers, firefighters and other emergency workers who die on their jobs. No such benefit goes to the survivors of PGW or other gas utility workers who die while working at scenes of emergencies.
The amendments to the state’s Emergency and Law Enforcement Personnel Death Benefit Act will change that.
State Sen. Mike Stack (D-5th dist.) said gas workers put their lives on the line while on their jobs. Their survivors should get the same death benefits afforded to the families of police and firefighters, he said.
“Municipal gas workers are public employees, too, and they need the same benefits,” said Stack, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the measure.
Keeley’s family, Philadelphia Gas Works representatives, state Reps. Brendan Boyle, John Sabatina and Kevin Boyle, and City Councilman at-large Jim Kenney joined Stack at last week’s announcement at the Gas Workers’ Union Hall on Marshall Street.
“I don’t think many people were aware of the risks PGW workers take until this winter’s tragedy,” said Brendan Boyle (D-170th dist.), who is sponsoring the House version of the bill.
Keeley, on the job for just four months, was among the crews of PGW workers who were checking out a gas leak on the 6900 block of Torresdale Ave. after 8 p.m. on Jan. 18. Natural gas leaking from a broken high-pressure gas main accumulated in the basement of a building at Torresdale and Disston. The gas ignited when a furnace went on.
Keeley, who was outside, died in the blast. A fire raged for two hours. Four other PGW workers and a firefighter were injured.
In the last legislative session, Brendan Boyle introduced a bill creating the Emergency and Law Enforcement Personnel Death Benefits Act. The measure was passed by the House and Senate and signed into law.
“Natural gas workers put their lives on the line every day to protect us from danger,” Kevin Boyle said. “In this case, Mark Keeley was my constituent, and I am going to fight to see that his sacrifice is not forgotten. His family deserves all of our gratitude and support.”
“For putting his life on the line, it’s only fair that Mark had the peace of mind to know that if anything happened to him, his family would be taken care of,” Sabatina said.
Kenney said something should be done for gas workers, but he realized it had to be done on the state level.
“We should tell gas workers we appreciate what they do,” the councilman said.
“We’re finally going to be recognized as first responders. Every day, our lives are in danger,” said Keith Holmes, president of Local 686 of the Utility Workers Union of America. “We deserve the same benefits the firefighters and police officers get.”
Keeley’s father, Tom, thanked everyone gathered at the union hall last Thursday.
Referring to the bills prompted by his family’s loss, he said, “Maybe some good can come out of this.” ••