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2021 in review: Tyrone explosion, death of corrections officer mar year

The events that shaped Blair County

Firefighters work to contain several home fires on the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, Tyrone on July 26, 2021. Altoona Mirror photo by Dan Isenberg

The explosion in Tyrone that killed one person and the death of Blair County Corrections Officer Rhonda Russell were voted the top local stories of 2021 by the Mirror newsroom.

The news staff voted in December on the top stories from a ballot that included the most prominent news items from throughout the year. In addition to the explosion and the corrections officer’s death were the ongoing mask debates, sentencings that wrapped up murder cases and two new homicide cases. Flooding issues and job losses also made the Top 10 list.

Tyrone explosion

An explosion caused by a gas leak July 26 killed an elderly woman and injured several people on the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Tyrone.

The explosion leveled a house, caused a fire that destroyed another house, damaged a third home and led to evacuations.

Blair County Prison personnel give slain Corrections Officer Rhonda Russell final honors four at a time as part of her memorial service at the Blair County Convention Center on Nov. 29, 2021. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Anna L. Hunsicker, 83, who lived at 1306 Pennsylvania Ave., the address of the house that exploded and caught fire a few minutes later, was killed from the explosion, not the fire, the Blair County Coroner’s Office ruled.

AMED took a Peoples Natural Gas Co. employee, three residents and a bystander to the hospital, with two of them being flown to Pittsburgh for treatment of burns.

As approximately 175 firefighters worked to contain the blaze, the gas leakage continued, penetrating into sewer lines and the ground, leading to an evacuation of a four-square block area and the establishment of an evacuation center at Church of the Good Shepherd, with a secondary site at Tyrone Area High School.

The gas leak and corresponding explosion were apparently associated with an ongoing water line replacement project.

The investigation continues, but according to Peoples Natural Gas spokesman Barry Kukovich, “Our preliminary investigation leads us to believe that the gas leak was due to our pipeline being struck by a horizontal drill operated by a contractor working on a water project. We have determined that our lines were properly marked.”

Trisha Emmil, mother of a Altoona Area School District elementary student, speaks during the district's special mask mandate meeting in the high School auditorium on Sept. 7, 2021. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

In December, Tyrone Borough Council recognized five men who entered the burning house on Pennsylvania Avenue, saving the life of a resident who lived there and to the borough fire chief, who was in charge of the scene of the emergency.

Those recognized were Nate Verilla, Kenny Parks, Aaron Clark, Matthew Butz and Neptune Fire Chief Alan Walls.

But as this story was being compiled, the man rescued from the blaze passed away. Ed Patterson, 69, died Dec. 24 “after a long battle with illness stemming from the house fire on July 26, 2021,” according to his obituary.

Blair County Coroner Patty Ross is investigating to see whether she should add his name to that of Hunsicker as a fatality from the incident.

As the community reeled from the tragedy, they also did what they do best — they came together and offered an outpouring of support, said longtime resident Michael Walsh.

Tom Rematt of Patton (left) waits 15 minutes along with other COVID-19 vaccine recipients on March 30, 2021, during the first of the weekly mass vaccination clinics set at the Jaffa Shrine Center by Mainline Pharmacy. The pharmacy was set to distribute 1,400 during the first clinic with 2,000-2,500 per clinic goal to follow. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

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 grew in the days after with townspeople and residents in the surrounding areas donating money and clothing to those in need.

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

Councilman David Snyder said tragedies of that magnitude don’t happen often, “but when it does, you’re grateful that you’re not alone.”

CO Russell killed

Blair County corrections officer Rhonda Jean Russell, 47, of Altoona, was killed Nov. 17 when a male inmate disarmed her during a struggle at the Central Court building, 615 Fourth St.

Dozens of friends and relatives of Devon Pfirsching met at the Cesare Battisti Club in Altoona on the one year anniversary of his death on Feb. 25, 2021. The event was organized by his family. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

According to state police, Christopher Aikens, 54, an inmate at the Blair County Prison, overpowered Russell, took her firearm and held her hostage in an attempt to escape.

An Altoona police officer in the court building responded to the struggle and discharged his firearm in an attempt to stop Aikens from harming Russell.

Police said Russell was struck after Aikens shoved her into the line of fire. Russell was later pronounced dead at UPMC Altoona.

Aikens, of Altoona, has a criminal history dating back to the 1980s. He faces felony charges of second-degree murder, disarming a law enforcement officer, possession of a firearm, escape, aggravated assault and kidnapping.

The investigation has been turned over to the state police.

Locomotives are parked outside of the Norfolk Southern Juniata Locomotive Shop as the rail line announced the of the furlough of 17 mechanical employees on Jan. 8, 2021. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

In a show of support for the family and respect for the officer, 1,100 people attended Russell’s memorial service Nov. 29 at the Blair County Convention Center. Many more watched via live broadcasts.

Out-of-state honor guards came from California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Michigan and Colorado.

After the service, a procession of about 70 vehicles exited Convention Center Drive and traveled along Plank Road where several flag holders lined the intersection and others saluted as the caravan passed.

3. School directors lambasted for masks

Area school boards and school administrators were lambasted throughout the school year by parents and residents opposed to the state mandate that required students to wear masks.

Mask opponents wanted the boards to stand up to the state and implement their own rules.

On Dec. 10, the state Supreme Court tossed the statewide school mask mandate, giving districts the authority to decide their own policies. Almost immediately, the Altoona Area School District announced it would no longer mandate masks for students.

The week before, the Hollidaysburg Area School Board voted 5-4 to make masks optional for all students and staff.

Tyrone Area and Bellwood-Antis school districts then reverted to their health and safety plans that only require masks if mandated by the governor.

The districts said they would follow state guidelines.

Masks are still required by federal mandate on public transportation, including school buses.

4. Vaccines available; UPMC overwhelmed

Mainline Pharmacy, a local independent pharmacy chain, played a key role early on by administering COVID-19 vaccinations in the area.

Other pharmacies and health care facilities also offered vaccinations.

By the beginning of April, Mainline had vaccinated about 55,000 people through area clinics, which were held at the Jaffa Shrine Center in Altoona, Saint Francis University in Loretto, the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and several other sites.

As of late December, Mainline had performed nearly 200,000 vaccinations, said John Pastorek, director of the pharmacy.

While the vaccines are available and help prevent serious illness in many people, the pandemic raged on and two new variants of the disease have been found — delta and omicron. Hospitals such as UPMC Altoona were beset by a shortage of nurses and other employees, which has led to longer wait times for patients in the emergency department.

Hesitancy about going to UPMC Altoona’s emergency room because of reports of long wait times led to five people dying at home in a four-hour period, AMED Executive Director Gary Watters said during an AMED board meeting in December.

Meanwhile, registered nurses from UPMC Altoona protested in front of UPMC’s corporate headquarters at the Steel Tower in Pittsburgh on Dec. 15 over a “growing care crisis” in Altoona.

Wait times at UPMC Altoona had skyrocketed to 24 hours, with some patients waiting more than 50 hours to be seen, said union spokeswoman Jenn Landolina Wood.

UPMC officials said they are attempting to rise to the occasion.

“We are working to monitor and prioritize care in our emergency departments and doing all we can to make sure those who have to wait can wait safely,” said UPMC spokeswoman Corinne Weaver. “We have implemented a number of incentives to attract and retain nurses and other health care professionals (although SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania declined to participate in these programs).”

In a show of support for the nurses, a member of the board of directors of UPMC and UPMC Altoona made a $250,000 donation that resulted in everyone “employed directly” at the local hospital receiving a check for $100 on Christmas Eve.

“My family and I would like to recognize your compassionate efforts during the past nearly two years of the COVID pandemic,” wrote Robert Montler in a letter shared with the Mirror by a hospital employee. “Every member of the staff that works in UPMC Altoona hospital has worked well beyond the normal call of duty.”

Montler, a 1969 graduate of Bishop Guilfoyle High School and also a graduate of Saint Francis University, is CEO of Lee Industries in Philipsburg.

5. Blazier found guilty by jury

A former Bellwood-Antis junior high school wrestling coach is facing a lengthy prison sentence after being convicted Oct. 15 on seven sexual assault charges arising from allegations by two student wrestlers.

Ryan L. Blazier, 41, who has been in Blair County Prison since he was arrested in February 2020, was acquitted of nine related sexual assault offenses. The jury returned guilty verdicts on charges of aggravated indecent assault, institutional sexual assault, corruption of minors and intimidation of a victim/witness applicable to one of the student victims as well as institutional sexual assault, corruption of minors and intimidation of a victim/witness for the other.

The jury acquitted Blazier of one count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse by force, two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse where the victim is less than 16, three counts of institutional sexual assault and three counts of indecent assault where the victim is less than 16.

Defense attorney Thomas M. Dickey described Blazier, who has maintained his innocence from the beginning, as disappointed with the guilty verdicts.

Dickey said he plans to appeal the verdict.

Judge Daniel J. Milliron scheduled Blazier’s sentencing for Jan. 26. His bail was revoked so he will remain in prison through sentencing.

6. Brothers accused of killing brothers

Two reports of a brother killing a brother occurred during the summer.

* Vasudev Yash Aswathappa, 18, of Hollidaysburg, faces criminal homicide and related charges in the June 27 stabbing death of his brother, Suryadev Aswathappa, 24.

Vasudev Aswathappa waived his preliminary hearing in July. He was denied bail and remains in the Blair County Prison.

Court documents stated Vasudev Aswathappa allegedly confessed to police that he stabbed his brother multiple times at their residence when he confronted his older brother about ruining his childhood with mental and physical abuse.

Vasudev Aswathappa initially claimed that his brother died from suicide and he discovered his body in the basement of the residence along the 100 block of Frankstown Sportsman Road.

Police on scene said they discovered Suryadev Aswathappa lying face down on a bed in the basement with stab wounds to his back and hand.

Vasudev Aswathappa is charged with criminal homicide, tampering with/fabricating physical evidence, aggravated assault-attempts to cause serious bodily injury or causes injury with extreme indifference, aggravated assault-attempts to cause or causes serious bodily injury with a deadly weapon, possession of an instrument of crime with intent, recklessly endangering another person and unsworn falsification to authorities.

* In a second case, an argument over the barrel of a gun allegedly led to a man killing his brother July 24 in the Claysburg area.

Larry M. Claar, 41, was arraigned by Bedford County Magisterial District Judge Brian K. Baker after allegedly shooting and killing his brother, Michael Claar, 46, at 298 Picnic Road, Kimmel Township.

Larry Claar has been charged with homicide, first- and third-degree murder, aggravated assault, simple assault, tampering with evidence and abuse of a corpse.

According to the criminal complaint, the incident began when Larry Claar allegedly fired several rounds at his brother’s truck, causing Michael Claar to confront him.

Police said officers were contacted by Roger Claycomb at 8:22 p.m. July 24 regarding the welfare of Michael Claar, who Claycomb said was working on a truck when he heard “five or six” gunshots.

After Michael Claar left to confront Larry Claar, Roger Claycomb said he heard one more gunshot, the criminal complaint stated.

According to Claycomb, sometime after the final gunshot, Larry Claar was seen driving down the road once in an RV, then up and down several additional times in a blue Chevy pickup truck.

Larry Claar’s son told police that he had seen his dad at the garage earlier, and he had left just before dark, court documents stated.

The son told police that Larry Claar could potentially be at the residence of David Smith.

When police checked in with Smith, he said that Larry Claar allegedly told him that he “had done something bad” and that he needed to clean up animal blood.

According to Smith, he also heard Larry Claar operating a tractor, and police reported a freshly excavated area of dirt behind Smith’s property.

Police said Michael Claar’s body was discovered in the freshly excavated area on Smith’s property.

7. Teens plead in murder case

Three Altoona teenagers facing murder charges in the Feb. 27, 2020, shooting death of 15-year-old Devon Pfirsching of Altoona entered guilty pleas Oct. 28 in Blair County Court.

Their criminal cases, which were moving toward trial in late November, were resolved with the guilty pleas in exchange for recommended sentences imposed by President Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle.

Those entering pleas were:

* Owen Southerland, 18, to first-degree murder, robbery, criminal conspiracy to commit robbery, criminal use of a communication facility and two firearm violations, in exchange for a sentence of 35 years to life, with the possibility of parole after 35 years.

* Logan Persing, 18, to third-degree murder, robbery, criminal conspiracy to commit robbery and criminal use of a communication facility in exchange for a sentence of 17 to 34 years, followed by 16 years’ probation.

* Omedro T. Davis Jr., 18, to third-degree murder, robbery, criminal conspiracy to commit robbery, criminal use of a communication facility and a firearms violation in exchange for 10 to 20 years’ incarceration.

All three teenagers, represented by defense attorneys and with parents in the courtroom gallery, told Doyle that they were making the decision to enter guilty pleas instead of going to trial. She handled each teenager’s case separately.

Based on an Altoona police investigation and the criminal charges filed, Southerland was holding the gun that discharged and killed Pfirsching on the 100 block of Fourth Avenue Alley, near Jefferson Park.

Persing was with Southerland, and a third youth, Damien A. Green of Altoona. Police said they were planning to rob Pfirsching of cash and marijuana during a nearly-midnight meeting.

While Davis wasn’t at the site of the fatal shooting, Altoona police accused him of procuring the gun used in the shooting and of communicating with the other teenagers about the proposed robbery.

Green’s criminal charges, meanwhile, remain on hold since the state Superior Court ruled that because a decision to transfer his case to juvenile court was rendered too late, it should remain in adult court. That ruling is expected to be appealed.

8. Jury finds Copley guilty

An Altoona man accused of killing his wife and abandoning her body in a garage was convicted Aug. 6 of third-degree murder, aggravated assault and related charges, wrapping up a case that began with the 2015 disappearance of the woman.

Testimony during the five-day trial in Blair County Court pegged Michael D. Copley, 33, as the one who killed 29-year-old Catherine Copley at their Seventh Avenue residence in December 2015, then used a friend’s vehicle to transport her body to a garage behind a vacant house on the 400 block of East Pleasant Valley Boulevard.

Her partly decomposed body was found six months later by two young men visiting a relative who lived nearby.

In October, Copley was sentenced to 26.5 to 57 years in prison.

Judge Wade Kagarise included a clause on his opposition to future parole should Copley pursue that possibility after finishing the minimum portion of his state prison sentence.

Defense attorney Richard Corcoran said his client continues to maintain his innocence and will file an appeal on Copley’s behalf.

District Attorney Pete Weeks said he was satisfied that the jury had carefully weighed the evidence.

While it acquitted Copley of first-degree murder, defined as an intentional killing, Weeks praised the jury for its attentiveness and for weighing the evidence carefully during deliberations that took six hours.

Throughout the trial, Weeks and First Assistant District Attorney Nichole Smith acknowledged that their case was circumstantial, with no witnesses who saw the murder nor Michael Copley’s efforts to dispose of her body.

But they called upon 30 witnesses to hold Copley accountable, supplemented by DNA evidence and computerized software tracking data.

When Catherine Copley went missing, Michael Copley told police that his wife was taking a bath when he left their residence on Dec. 10, 2015, the last time he saw her.

Smith said bathing would have washed away DNA evidence, but after six months of abandonment in an unheated garage, Catherine Copley still had her husband’s DNA under her fingernails.

9. Flooding swamps area again and again

Slow-moving thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain in a few hours deluging parts of the county in June and left residents asking the city for help.

Hard-hit areas included the 1100 block of 21st Avenue and Brush Run between Pleasant Valley and Valley View boulevards.

The volume of rainfall overwhelmed the combined storm and sanitary systems.

There was uncertainty about how much rain fell in the area that funnels to the 21st Avenue depression. An employee of the city spoke of seeing 5 inches registered on a rain gauge, according to city Public Works Director Nate Kissell.

But the effects were evident as residents saw basements flooded and 10 cars destroyed. Property owners were faced with replacing hot-water heaters, furnaces, other appliances flooring and in some cases, walls.

Residents along Brush Run also experienced flooding problems that day as runoff from Brush Mountain and nearby hills flowed into the stream, causing it to rapidly rise in heavy rains.

A few weeks later, that same area again experienced flooding from storms.

Altoona plans to earmark some of its federal coronavirus funding to address some of the flooding issues.

Remnants of two hurricanes also caused significant flooding throughout the area within a two-week period this summer.

There was intermittent hard rain Aug.18 from Tropical Depression Fred that collapsed the front foundation wall of a house in Williamsburg.

Fred deposited a little over 2 inches of rain in 40 minutes between noon and 1 p.m. at the Altoona-Blair County Airport in Martinsburg.

In the 24 hours ending mid-evening Aug. 18, 3.68 inches fell on Altoona.

The foundation-wall cave-in rendered the Williamsburg house uninhabitable, according to Blair County Emergency Management Director Mark Taylor. The couple and their pets got out safely.

Two weeks later, remnants of Hurricane Ida caused flooding in parts of Blair and Bedford counties.

Blair County commissioners declared a disaster emergency after Ida’s remnants dropped about 5.5 inches of rain throughout the county.

In Bedford County, remnants of Hurricane Ida left much of the area near the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River, Shober’s Run and Bob’s Creek underwater.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed Raystown Lake facilities, including boat ramps, because of significant flooding from the storm.

10. Appvion closes up shop

Plans to close one of Blair County’s oldest manufacturing facilities, Appvion Inc.’s Spring Mill in Roaring Spring, were announced Feb. 15.

The plant, which had been operating since 1866, employed 243 hourly and 50 salaried employees.

“Appvion officials told us that the continued market constraints brought by the pandemic and resulting restrictions has wreaked havoc in an already volatile and competitive carbonless paper,” said Altoona Blair County Development Corp. President/CEO Stephen McKnight.

In July, a group of four companies purchased the former paper mill in hopes of finding an operator that could restart paper manufacturing there.

However, the ownership group instead auctioned off the papermaking equipment online in September.

“Before, they were hopeful they would be able to sell (the mill) as a papermaking operation,” McKnight said. “Now it looks like that’s not likely. It’s a massive disappointment.”

The plant’s boiler and “pulp-related infrastructure” remain, however, so there still may be an opportunity for a buyer to restart operations to produce an intermediate product — in contrast to the finished paper the mill previously produced, McKnight said.

In other business news, U.S. Foods officials announced in June that its warehouse on Burns Avenue would close in September, eliminating 65 jobs.

The firm transferred those warehouse operations to its facilities in Greensburg and Allentown, although the Altoona property would remain operational as a shuttle yard.

The company said it would retain about 125 drivers and sales employees who work in the Altoona region.

The Altoona operation of U.S. Foods began as Sky Bros. in the 1930s.

In July, Norfolk Southern furloughed 86 employees at the Juniata Locomotive Shop, with the jobs of 14 additional jobs eliminated by attrition.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Jeff DeGraff said the layoffs are “part of our long-term business plans to evolve our operations to best serve the needs of our customers. … We remain committed to the region and (to) serving the needs of our customers.”

The job cuts brought the shop’s complement down to about 400.

The layoffs drew the ire of state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona.

“I think Norfolk Southern is nothing but a bunch of southern-fried asset strippers,” he said. “These executives can sit in their plush corporate offices in Norfolk and Atlanta and obsess about their next quarterly earnings report while 86 of my people have to go out and look for jobs.”

They’re “fake tough guys who buckle at the knees when one of their Wall Street paymasters looks sideways at them,” Schmitt said. They’re unwilling to “cut half a penny off their record-setting dividends to keep my people employed.”

On a brighter note

There were a lot of stories this past year that celebrated individual and group accomplishments — from young students cleaning up what is hoped to become an outdoor classroom at Myers Elementary School and skilled residents sewing masks as protection against COVID-19 to individuals writing books in their pandemic-inspired spare time.

However, there are two stories that stood out to Mirror news staff.

While they didn’t make the Top 10, both are significant for the county as both celebrate what hard work and determination can accomplish.

* Andrae Holsey, 22, was named president of the Blair County Chapter of the NAACP, succeeding Donald Witherspoon who died in December 2020.

Holsey became the youngest branch president in Pennsylvania and may be the youngest ever in the state.

Several weeks before he died, Witherspoon called Holsey and told him his energy was waning, and he was “ready to pass the torch.”

As branch president, Holsey said he intends to interact with the county district attorney’s office to help ensure fairness in matters of bail and incarceration before trial — in connection with competence of counsel for people who are accused and in connection with sentencing. He said he also plans to pay attention to racial issues in schools, in recreational settings and in hospitals.

Holsey is a member of the U.S. Army Reserves and a political science major at Penn State Altoona. He has experience as a restaurant server, a paralegal and as an operative running ballot initiatives in Pittsburgh. The former head drum major at Altoona Area High School also hopes to attend law school among other endeavors.

Holsey is “perfect presidential material,” said NAACP Second Vice President Paige Lightner. “He wants to make a change, and he’s not afraid of being part of that change.”

* Altoonan Meghan Sinisi was crowned the winner in the Miss Pennsylvania Scholarship Competition in June.

Sinisi, 26, is the daughter of Tony and Lori Sinisi of Altoona and represented the Commonwealth in December as she vied for the title of Miss America 2022.

A 2013 graduate of Altoona Area High School, Sinisi is also a graduate of Syracuse University and has a master’s degree from the University of Missouri in speech language pathology.

Sinisi was the second Altoona native to wear the Miss Pennsylvania crown. The first was Jill Shaffer Swanson, Miss Pennsylvania 1981.

Sinisi was not selected as Miss America but she walked away with three scholarship prizes.

She won the $10,000 Women In Business Scholarship as the overall finalist and two other $1,000 preliminary scholarships for being a Top 5 Finalist for Women in Business and a Top 5 Finalist for Equity & Justice.

Sinisi’s parents and brothers Joseph, 30, Christopher, 27, and Adam, 20, traveled to Uncasville, Conn., for the Miss America festivities at the Mohegan Sun Earth Expo & Convention Center.

Her father, in a text to the Mirror after the event, said the family is “disappointed but definitely not defeated.

She is a champion. The hardest working, driven individual I have ever had the privilege to know. The fact that she is my daughter is the cherry on top of the cake. The door is wide open for her and the sky is still the limit.”

Her brother Adam Sinisi said via a text that “I’m very proud of Meghan and how far she (has come), she is such a talented and beautiful young girl that is making a difference in this world. Extremely proud of her for being so strong and determined.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.

Jeff Ellis watches the rising Big Spring "Race" running adjacent to the Hite Apartment Building along Spring Street in Williamsburg on Sept. 1, 2021. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

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