EVERETT — The family of an elderly Everett woman killed in a house fire in 2019 is suing Puget Sound Energy and others, claiming her death was avoidable if not for the negligence of the state’s largest natural gas utility.
Josefa Starbuck was killed in the April 2019 fire with two alarms off Mukilteo Boulevard. She was 87 years old. Her daughter Marilyn was seriously injured. The Shore Avenue home, built in 1948, was a total loss. Damage was estimated at over $700,000, according to the lawsuit.
Five years before the fire, the family had a new water heater installed. Puget Sound Energy provided the natural gas to fuel it, according to the family’s lawsuit filed in Snohomish County Superior Court last week.
In early 2020, one of the family’s attorneys, Scott Carness, and others began investigating the origins of the fire. They found the natural gas fuel contained too much water, the family claims. The “wet gas” entered the gas flow control valve and caused severe corrosion. As a result, the valves could not close properly. The gas kept flowing. Then nearby floorboards caught fire.
The valve was taken to a New York lab for testing. It “looked like it came off the Titanic,” Carness told the Daily Herald.
Carness called it a “ticking time bomb”.
“Basically, it exploded,” he said.
PSE owned the water heater and was responsible for its maintenance, the lawsuit says. In 1972, the private supplier brought gas pipes into the house for the first time. But he rarely, if ever, checked the gas lines or leased appliances like the water heater, the family claims. And PSE reportedly didn’t allow the Starbuck family to repair the devices themselves.
Hours after a fire at a home killed an elderly woman and injured her adult daughter in Everett in 2019, foam poured down a driveway. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)
On April 25, 2019, Charles Starbuck took a shower at the Everett house. According to the lawsuit, when he opened the shower curtain, he billowed out with thick, dark smoke from the floor. A fire erupted in the basement.
Marilyn Starbuck slept in her room in the basement. She woke 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 out of the bottom of the water heater, the lawsuit says.
As she climbed the stairs, her body was on fire. She left the house and rolled in the grass to put it out.
Meanwhile, Josefa Starbuck was locked inside. A neighbor heard screams and tried to save her. He could grab her hand, but the smoke was too strong.
About 50 firefighters and paramedics 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 ER doctor.
Everett firefighters at an apartment fire that killed Josefa Starbuck, 87, in 2019. (Everett Fire Department)
“They are devastated,” Carness said. “They are broken.”
The family fears that other PSE customers may face a similar fate.
In 2021, PSE reported over 151,000 natural gas customers in Snohomish County. Nationwide, that number exceeds 900,000.
Bradford White made the water heater. A gas flow control valve was manufactured by Honeywell International. Both are also defendants in the case.
PSE and Bradford White declined to comment as litigation is pending.
Jake Goldstein Street: 425-339-3439; [email protected]. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.