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Tyrone blast, fire probed

Multiple agencies are conducting investigations into the natural gas explosion and fire Monday afternoon in Tyrone that killed Anna L. Hunsicker, 83, according to the borough’s Interim Police Chief Jessica Walk.

They include borough police, state police on behalf of the borough police, Peoples Natural Gas, water line contractor Glenn Johnston Inc. and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

“It may take weeks,” Walk said. “People are coming in from all over the state.”

Borough police are doing an initial investigation on the nature of what happened, while state police did an accident reconstruction, coupled with work by the fire marshal, according to Walk.

She doesn’t know whether criminal charges could result.

“It’s still early,” Walk said.

Before the explosion, gas was leaking from a lateral pipe that led to a parking lot where a house had previously been demolished, as a result of work connected with installation of a water line, according to a local business owner who saw the gas rising from a ditch in which the pipe was exposed.

A Peoples employee was waiting for a crew to come take care of the leak when the explosion occurred, according to the business owner.

The explosion leveled a house, then the house caught fire and burned quickly, setting the house next door on fire.

Hunsicker didn’t make it out of the house that exploded, although her grandson did.

A Peoples employee, three residents of the area near the blast and a bystander were taken to the hospital.

Two people escaped the house next door to the one that exploded, with help from several people, before it, too, became engulfed in flames.

Making an escape

Ed Patterson lived on the ground floor, while his granddaughter, Stormie Noel, lived upstairs.

Those who entered the house as it began to burn included an unidentified worker from the waterline construction crew; Aaron Clark and Matthew Butz, both of whom lived two doors away; and area residents Nate Verilla and his friend Kenny Parks — plus another unidentified person.

When the explosion happened, the roof of the house that exploded fell against the side wall of the Patterson-Noel house, jamming the interior door that would have allowed Noel to go downstairs directly, according to Parks, who spoke to Noel this week.

So Noel went out a back entrance and entered the first floor from outside to warn her grandfather of the danger, according to Parks.

Then Noel went back upstairs to rescue her two cats, Parks said.

At about that point, the construction worker went into the Patterson house from the front, then ducked out again to signal he needed assistance, according to Verilla, Parks and a surveillance video from Clark and Butz’s house.

So Clark, followed by the unidentified other man, then Verilla, then Butz, then Parks entered the house, according to the surveillance video.

Inside, Verilla and Parks focused on getting Patterson up from a recliner and into his wheelchair, according to Verilla and Parks.

They lifted him up by tugging under his armpits, and he fell into his wheelchair, they said.

They asked if anyone else was home, and Patterson said his granddaughter was upstairs.

So the construction worker went part way up the stairs and yelled, authoritatively and repeatedly, for the granddaughter to get out, that the house was on fire, according to Verilla and Parks.

“He was pretty adamant to make her exit,” Parks said.

Patterson asked about his oxygen, but they told him not to worry, and took his oxygen mask off so it wouldn’t be a hindrance, Verilla said.

Butz followed an oxygen line back, so that he could get an oxygen tank for Patterson, but with fire licking the side wall next to where they were stored, decided against it.

Verilla stood in back of the manual wheelchair and tried to push, but it wouldn’t go, so he and Parks lifted it up and carried it toward the front door.

Verilla and Parks had trouble getting the wheelchair through the door, and Clark helped Parks carry the front end down a short set of steps, according to Parks and the video.

“It was a total effort,” Parks said Friday. “A group effort.”

The men were in the house for only about 30 seconds, Parks estimated.

“It was insane,” he said.

The conditions and their effect on Parks were such that he was unaware afterward that Clark, Butz and the unidentified man, who wasn’t a construction worker, had also been in the house, Parks said.

He only believed it when he saw the surveillance video.

“It was a chaotic scene,” Verilla said.

Yet, earlier, immediately after the explosion, as he and Verilla approached from down the street, where they’d been having a conversation, the scene had seemed eerily quiet, Parks said.

And after the fire had started in the first house, and the construction worker called for help from Patterson’s front door, it still seemed like things were in slow motion, Verilla said.

It was only after a hesitation of about five seconds that he started over and went in, he said.

Once inside, though, “there was no thinking,” Verilla said. “It was all reacting.”

They knew they had to hurry, because the house that had exploded had been engulfed so quickly, Parks said.

It didn’t feel hot inside, “but you could hear (the fire) tearing at the roof,” Parks said. “You could hear it coming.”

“I’m just happy they’re alive,” Verilla said of Patterson and Noel.

Search on for cat

Noel lost her cat Topanga, a one-year-old female, who died from smoke inhalation, she said.

Her other cat, six-month-old Luca, escaped and hasn’t been found yet.

Luca was spotted behind the Burger King on Pennsylvania Avenue and near the Hookies Fire Company hall on Blair Avenue, she said.

Luca doesn’t have a collar. She’s gray, with spots of faded orange and silver.

“She is extremely skittish, and has never been outside, so we don’t know where she could be hiding,” Noel wrote to the Mirror.

Noel is offering a $100 reward for “anyone who can bring her to us,” she said.

She can be reached at 814-215-2221.

“They’re a very big part of our family,” Noel said of the cats. “It breaks my heart not having them here.”

Noel declined to talk to the Mirror about the evacuation of her house.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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