Emergency responders said a propane tank may have exploded at a Morgan Township, Greene County home Thursday afternoon, killing an 80-year-old man inside.
Officials said the man inside the 105 Creek St. home, who has not been identified, was using an oxygen tank.
Greene County Coroner Eugene Rush’s office did not release the identity of the man pending notification of next of kin.
Neighbors reported black smoke coming from the home just after 1 p.m. and it appeared that the roof of the home had partially collapsed.
Scott Adams rushed to the house and tried to open the door, yelling for the man who lived inside. He found the door was locked.
“So I picked up a sledgehammer and busted through the door. The smoke was horrible. The flames were right inside the door,” he said.
He tried to find another way inside, but was unable.
“I just wish they’d gotten the call that he wasn’t in there. I was hoping it was a good sign that the door was locked,” he said.
Jennifer Vouno also tried to help the man.
“We tried to bust in all the windows ... in the back but the flames and the smoke were just too black. We couldn’t breathe,” she said.
She said the house was quickly engulfed in flames and the roof began to collapse.
“That’s the first thing you think of is trying to save somebody,” she said.
Chartiers Bottom is a close-knit community where neighbors help one another and keep an eye out for each other, she said.
“I always keep an eye out for him. We always keep an eye out for each other,” she said. “I think we all do here.”
A state police fire marshal is investigating. Several fire departments responded including Centerville, Rices Landing, East Bethlehem Township, Jefferson Township, Fredricktown and Stockdale.
Southwest EMS also responded to the scene. The Salvation Army also responded to the scene to provide assistance to the firefighters and family members.
Deborah Braden was seen walking near the rubble of her North Franklin home Thursday morning.
“She’s alive,” her relieved sister, Jodi Braden, said.
Not 24 hours previously, the one-story ranch at 100 Park Lane was obliterated in an explosion, leaving debris scattered in nearby trees, yards, other homes and as far as a half-mile away. The explosion at 3:50 p.m. was heard and felt throughout the township, city of Washington and other communities.
No one, including Deborah, suffered life-threatening injuries. Deborah suffered some hearing problems, her sister said, and some minor injuries to her fingers. Jodi said her sister was unable to give a comment Thursday. Two North Franklin firefighters had cuts and abrasions, and a third suffered heat exhaustion. A neighbor experienced chest pains. All five were treated at Washington and Mercy hospitals.
North Franklin Fire Chief Dave Bane said the initial call about an odor linked to a natural gas leak came to emergency dispatchers at 3:40 p.m., 10 minutes before the blast.
Deborah, returning home from work at Community College of Allegheny County in Washington Crown Center, had opened her garage and “man” doors and heard a hissing noise, Bane said.
He and North Franklin Fire Capt. Kris Engel turned off the gas meter connected to the house. Bane radioed to an incoming fire engine that he needed gas detection meters, but “before their arrival, the house did explode.”
He and Engel were walking 30 to 40 feet away from the house when it exploded, while Deborah was closer.
“He was thrown forward,” Bane said of Engel at a news conference late Thursday afternoon. “I regained my balance and the lady that lived there, she came walking up. I turned around and saw, basically, nothing. The captain ended up over the hill in the weeds.”
Although Bane’s hearing was impaired, he was able to locate his line officer by calling out to him and heading toward his response. Engel “had been hit with wood or something,” Bane said.
Bane, reluctant to relinquish command, was coaxed into an ambulance, asking City Fire Chief Gerry Coleman to relieve him.
Before the explosion, Coleman had been listening to North Franklin’s radio traffic about the gas leak investigation and their plan to ventilate the house, he said.
“We heard a very, very large explosion,” Coleman said. “I was preparing myself for the worst. I knew the place exploded.”
Coleman thought he was responding to a scene to dig out friends, people he’s worked with for years, or whatever was left of them.
“As I responded to the scene, in my mind, I thought this was going to be a really, really bad day,” Coleman said.
He felt much better when he arrived and saw them alive.
“Chief Bane was still up, dazed, but still attempting to help the victims and his guys,” Coleman said. “That speaks to his character and passion. It was pretty amazing.”
The North Franklin chief, who has held the post for 11 years, was hospitalized for hearing and vision problems.
“I just have pressure in my ear and I’m hearing real bad,” he said, noting that he was released from the hospital by about 8:30 or 9 p.m.
Coleman said Bane and his son, Steven, the third firefighter injured, returned to the scene that night to help. Coleman said fire and police crews from all over Washington County offered assistance Wednesday.
Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania took full responsibility for the explosion Thursday afternoon during a news conference with gas company President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Huwar.
“Our customers deserve safe and reliable delivery of natural gas to their homes,” Huwar said. “We failed to deliver on our mission in this instance, and we are deeply sorry.”
Huwar said Columbia Gas crews had started “routine modernization work” Tuesday to replace old gas mains in that area. He said as part of the work, each customer’s home connected to the main line needs to have a gas regulator installed.
“This device regulates the pressure level of gas entering the home,” Huwar said.
Because Deborah’s house was on a different street than the rest of the system and sat farther back on Park Lane, the house was overlooked. Crews did not realize it was part of the system and the house didn’t get a pressure regulator, Huwar said.
“Therefore, when the new system was energized, and because the pressure regulator was not added, the elevated pressure led to the leak, which led to the explosion,” Huwar said.
Huwar said the company has suspended all non-emergency work in the township and will be working to improve their survey procedures following this incident.
“We are changing the process to expand the geographic areas that are reviewed in detail before such a project is conducted,” he said. “We need to do better; we understand that.”
Huwar said the company is working with state police, the Public Utility Commission and fire personnel on a continued investigation and to determine if the blast caused any damage to the system. They also are still trying to determine an ignition source.
At Thursday’s late afternoon news conference, North Franklin Supervisor Bob Sabot, on behalf of his board, issued a cease and desist order to Andrew Tubbs, Columbia Gas vice president of external and customer affairs of Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The notice said, “Due to the severe nature of this incident, the township has a serious concern for the health, safety and general welfare of the public at large.”
The notice excludes emergency repairs and “measures specifically approved by the Pennsylvania PUC or relevant authorities.”
Residents will have an opportunity to express their concerns to Columbia Gas officials at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 13 at a meeting to be convened in the fire hall, 565 Sylvan Drive.
Several homes in the area were structurally damaged, with cracks in walls and foundations. Windows of homes along Park Avenue were blown out. The front door of Deborah’s home had been blown all the way to the backyard of a Park Avenue residence.
Huwar said that after the explosion, Columbia Gas shut off service to about 60 customers as a precaution. He said that as of Thursday morning, about half of them had had their service restored.
Insurance agents and structural engineers were in the neighborhood Thursday assessing damage to nearby homes, including one that has allegedly been condemned. Huwar said the gas company had claims agents meeting with homeowners to assess damage and that the company has set up a claims hotline for affected customers at 1-800-445-5846.
“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with the individuals who were injured and impacted by the event, especially the family that lost its home,” Huwar said.
Sabot called for Columbia Gas to bear the entire cost of the cleanup and to reimburse agencies who sent emergency responders.
According to county property records, Deborah had purchased the property in 1996, and the house was built by Habitat for Humanity.
“She did so much of that work herself,” said Washington County Treasurer Francis King, who got to know her when Deborah was an employee of the county’s domestic relations office.
“What a shame just to lose everything, all she had and memorabilia,” King said. “Who knows where it ended up.”
On a Facebook post, Deborah’s friend, Jessica Allison, asked that anyone who may come across any intact objects that might belong to Deborah make contact through the social media site. Allison is also organizing a fundraiser on her friend’s behalf from noon to 6 p.m. Aug. 17 at Edwin Scott Linton American Legion Post 175, 168 Park Ave., Washington. She is seeking volunteers and baskets to be donated for a silent auction.
A GoFundMe account was set up Wednesday evening for Deborah called “Our Dear Friend Debbie Braden.” So far, it’s raised over $4,000.
Tabatha Hurst was leaving work Wednesday when she received a most unsettling phone call from her daughter, Courtney.
“She said, ‘Mom, don’t freak out. The house behind us blew up,’” Tabatha recalled Thursday morning.
Somehow, Mom did not freak out, but she was eager to get back to her house on Park Avenue in North Franklin Township. Extremely eager. “My first thought was to see if my kids are OK, if my husband was OK.”
Courtney and the rest of her family – husband Juddy, son Ryan and their dog – were inside when an explosion obliterated the residence at 100 Park Lane, downhill from them.
The Hursts were among dozens of nearby residents who sustained damage to their buildings and/or psyches from the blast, which occurred at 3:50 p.m. Wednesday, tearing a house asunder and scattering debris high and wide. Some of it was visible in treetops 200 feet high.
Columbia Gas took responsibility for the explosion, in which five individuals – the homeowner, a neighbor and three firefighters – were hospitalized for injuries or medical conditions. Firefighters had arrived before the explosion, when the homeowner, Deborah Braden, reported that she smelled gas.
Courtney Hurst, 15 going on 16, a student at Trinity High School across the road, was visibly upset Thursday, 18 hours after the explosion.
“I didn’t know what had happened,” she recounted. “It sounded like an earthquake and the house was shaking. Literally, everything came crashing down. There’s a hole in the wall in my room and there’s nothing on the walls.
“I was lying on the couch, where nothing fell on me. But if I were sitting somewhere else ...”
“This has devastated and traumatized me and traumatized my daughter,” Tabatha said. “She’s a little scared to go in her room.”
Among other things, the family had a back window destroyed, their back deck lifted up and badly damaged, and a wounded patriarch. Tabatha said her spouse, Juddy, had his leg cut by loosed doorway frames.
“We have a lot of damage,” she said. “Broken glass, windows that won’t shut. It’s a mess.”
Tabatha and her family at least have a safe haven. They are staying temporarily with her parents.
The Iams family at 270 Park Ave. is thankful none of them were home when the explosion happened, though their three cats and five gerbils seem traumatized, they said.
Cindy Iams was at work nearby when she heard the boom.
“I could see the smoke and see the debris in the air,” she said.
She knew it was close to her home, but her husband, Scott Iams, and their daughter, Abby, weren’t home either. Abby’s bedroom had multiple, significant cracks in the walls and ceiling and shattered glass everywhere from the window.
“I couldn’t sleep in there last night,” Abby said. “I’m too afraid the ceiling’s going to to come down.”
Brian Wylie, at 262 Park Ave., said he’s thankful his wife had back problems that day. She left their house and went to the chiropractor.
“It’s amazing no one died in this,” he said. “If you don’t believe in God, after this you probably should now.”
Wylie was at work when he got a phone call about the explosion. He said his wife called him to say, “Debbie’s house exploded.”
Their two dogs were inside his house during the explosion. He said a piece of large debris struck his door, and the dogs got out of the house. They ran around the neighborhood scared until a neighbor took them in, he said.
Wylie believes his roof lifted up and came back down in the explosion. He also has a crack in the foundation, and his back deck is swaying. He said that while he’s nervous his house will be condemned due to the damage, he’s also amazed it was even still standing after the explosion.
“I’m glad my house was built as good as it was and for the tree coverage,” he said.
Up the hill, at the intersection with West Maiden Street, Cyril Walther lost a large plate-glass window and a night of pizza-making. The temporary closure, however, shouldn’t have happened.
Cyril, 76, the owner of Walther’s Hill House, said Columbia Gas told him Wednesday it was shutting off gas to about 60 area customers, and his shop was among them. Then he said he found out Thursday morning he had not lost gas service.
“Our parking lot was filled with vehicles of firefighters, police and emergency personnel,” said Walther, whose eatery operates from 5 to 9:30 p.m. “We could have opened ... well, maybe at 8.
He appeared to be only mildly disturbed by that, though, and resumed the pizza-flipping Thursday evening. There was some damage to an upstairs bathroom as well, including a twisted pipe that created a leak.
Walther, who lives in a house behind the shop, said the blast knocked a number of his wife’s knickknacks off walls, some of them pricey. He also owns rental properties nearby that experienced damage.
Down the hill, and not far away from the explosion site, American Legion Post 175 sits inside the city of Washington line. It escaped unscathed – “to the best of my knowledge,” commander Dave Staniszewski said. He said pavilions on a hill behind the Legion building “have to be checked” along with the roof.
Actually, the blast did cause a mild disturbance at the Legion. “Some beer bottles fell off the bar,” Staniszewski said.
Employees from Samson Glass & Mirror Inc., in Eighty Four, came to the neighborhood after work hours Thursday to help the families board up broken windows and doors.
"There were shards of glass everywhere," said Melissa Metteson, president of the company. "Since windows and glass are what we do, we thought we could be of some help."
They were out there until 11 p.m. that night boarding up five homes affected by the explosion.
Katie Anderson contributed to this story.