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‘A giving town’

Tyrone community rallies after tragedy

Volunteers Billie Jo Friday (center) and Terry and Ashley Tate, all of Tyrone sort donations for explosion victims at the Tyrone Armory on Friday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

TYRONE — Before the dust had settled at the site of Monday’s home explosion and fires, Tyrone residents did what they do best — they came together and offered an outpouring of support, said longtime resident Michael Walsh.

Food and cases of water were donated and handed out to first responders working at the scene as the events unfolded and the groundswell of support has only grown in the days since with townspeople and residents in the surrounding areas continuing to donate money and clothing to those in need.

The blast caused by a gas leak left one dead, five injured, and several residents without a home or belongings other than the shirts on their backs.

“It’s devastating losing everything you own,” said Tammy Topar, who lived on the second floor of the house that was leveled in the explosion.

Topar was fortunate as she was visiting her sister in Ellwood City at the time. Now she is staying with her parents near Punxsutawney.

“A lot of people have been contacting me personally to make sure I’m OK,” Topar said. “I have so many calls to make.”

Monday’s tragic events are not a first for Tyrone, which in 1972 withstood a devastating flood caused by Tropical Storm Agnes. That flood killed dozens and left scores homeless. During that same year, a hotel fire claimed 13 lives, including a family of seven.

Walsh remembers those events. His wife’s family perished in the hotel blaze, he said, adding that donations paid for their funerals. Donations also paid the bills of those displaced by the hotel fire, he said.

He can see that same outpouring of support happening today.

“This is a giving town,” Walsh said. “It’s so close, everybody knows everybody. It’s like a big family here.”

In this town with a population of just over 5,200 people, Walsh said residents take care of their own.

“You don’t wait for the government to step in and help, you help. If you got, you give. That’s the way this town is,” he said. “That’s why I live here.”

Facebook posts show that donations can be dropped off at The Brew Coffee and Tap in downtown Tyrone.

Shannon Rice, who owns the coffee shop, lives across the street from the blast site. While she didn’t know the victims personally, she is good friends with the granddaughter of Anna L. Hunsicker, the person who was killed in the blast.

Rice and her family had been visiting her grandmother an hour away when tragedy struck her neighbors. She was bombarded by calls and texts asking if she was OK.

“We knew we had to do something,” Rice said of giving back to the community.

She opened her shop as a drop off location for donations for those affected by the fires.

“So much has been donated,” she said. “If I had to estimate, maybe 50 garbage bags full. Easily thousands of articles of clothing, from mens to womens to childrens to baby clothes. And shoes, blankets, miscellaneous household items, baby items, pantry food items. It’s been amazing. The gift cards alone total well over $2,000. Everyone has been truly amazing.”

Donations are also being gathered at The Beauty Salon, Church of the Good Shepherd and the Tyrone Public Library among other locations. Those items will be compiled and sorted in the Tyrone Armory.

Nate and Tracy Verilla opened their doors to the donations as the Armory has more space to store them.

“That’s what community is, when people come together in unity,” Nate Verilla said. “All we really did was open our doors.”

Councilman David Snyder has been helping with the organization and promotion of donation efforts.

“The abundance of the donations is phenomenal,” he said. “There’s real humanity there.”

One of the people who lost everything is pregnant, and organizers have received at least 20 car seat donations, Snyder said.

“That’s community being community,” he said.

The Tyrone community needed no prompting to jump into action, Snyder said, adding “when one of us suffers, we all do.”

Other fundraising efforts include People’s Gas offering food and lodging, Domino’s and Gardener’s Candy organizing a portion of their proceeds to go to the victims and their families, and clothing shops offering gift cards. Sam’s Club and Save A Lot donated cases of water to first responders on the scene Monday.

There are also three GoFundMe pages circulating on social media to benefit the families affected by the blaze and there is talk of holding a fundraising dinner and community closet in the near future.

Two Tyrone brothers, ages 13 and 9, even raised $938.58 for the victims on Thursday by setting up a lemonade stand, and they only charged 50 cents a cup.

Tragedies with Monday’s magnitude don’t happen often, Snyder said. “But when it does you’re grateful that you’re not alone.”

“After coming out of a pandemic year and a bunch of negativity that swarmed around the pandemic and the election, to have this happen is extremely tragic,” he said.

But, Snyder said, the outpouring of support shows that “humanity and community and generosity is alive and that is important for us to remember. I am definitely encouraged by that.”

Mirror staff writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.

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