PA House Explosion Kills 5, Investigation Ongoing
On Saturday (Aug. 12), an explosion in Plum, Pennsylvania, leveled three homes and damaged dozens of others, leaving five dead and several injured.
While the cause of the explosion is under investigation, it is expected to take “months, if not years,” to determine what happened, as residents look for answers.
Around 10 a.m., first responders reportedly acted on several 911 calls of a house explosion in the borough just east of Pittsburgh. Responding officers and firefighters arrived to find "people trapped under the debris," Allegheny County officials reported.
Three homes were reportedly leveled by the blast, with a dozen or more damaged in the neighborhood. Windows were blown out and doors were reportedly blown open.
Rafal Kolankowski, who lives a few houses down, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the explosion broke the windows in his house and knocked him and his wife to the ground. After recovering and checking on his son, he went outside where he said a woman told him another woman had been upstairs and a man was in the basement. The other woman later emerged covered in white ash, but the individual in the basement had not yet exited, he said.
“It’s just tragic ... it looks like a war zone—it looks like a bomb hit our neighborhood and it's just unfortunate,” Kolankowski said. “I was just with some of the neighbors yesterday ... and now this happens.”
Another neighbor likened the explosion to a bomb blast. “The house was gone,” he said. “It was just debris and soot everywhere.”
Lanny Conley, the Chief of the Plum Borough Police Department, said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that four adults and one adolescent had died and been recovered from the scene. The ages and names of the victims have not been released.
Officials told reporters that they didn’t know who was home and how many had had visitors at the time of the explosion, leaving them unable to provide an exact number of people unaccounted for.
Steve Imbarlina, the Assistant Chief for Allegheny County emergency services, said that two of the injured people had been released from the hospital and a third was in critical condition on Sunday afternoon.
Additionally, he said emergency medical workers treated 57 firefighters for minor issues while they responded to the explosion and fire.
PLUM EXPLOSION | Ring door bell footage was given to us of the devastating Rustic Ridge Dr. explosion this morning in Plum. Folks on this block tell me the heavy damage is their last concern, they’re only worried about their neighbors impacted. 1/2 @WTAE pic.twitter.com/QXdcjUkWsQ— Tori Yorgey WTAE (@toriyorgeytv) August 13, 2023
Officials said the effort to resume utility operations to the borough was underway, though electricity coverage for houses neighboring the explosion site would remain without power. On Monday, officials tweeted that electricity had been restored to the neighborhood, except for the area immediately surrounding the blast.
Mike Huwar, president of Peoples Gas, said gas service was shut off to the Rustic Ridge neighborhood by 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Gas crews checked for gas leakages following the explosion and determined the gas system had been “operating as designed,” and no timeline has been established for returning gas services to the area.
The Allgeheny County Fire Marshall’s office is the lead investigator for determining the cause and origin of the fire, working with local, state and federal partners, officials said.
Currently, the cause of the explosion is under investigation, but Imbarlina estimated the investigation could last “months, if not years,” to conduct forensic and other testing.
“This is certainly a sad, sad day and a sad time, for not just the folks in Plum but all the folks in the community and in this region,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
A neighbor told the Post-Gazette that as many as 11 of the homes damaged in the explosion would reportedly have to be demolished.
According to reports, officials confirmed that the neighborhood is surrounded by shallow oil and gas wells and located atop abandoned mine land. While two producing vertical gas wells are within 1,000 feet of the home that exploded, and a pipeline runs behind the development, none of the structures have been linked to the cause of the explosion.
However, The Washington Post reports that this is not the first time Plum has been affected by a home explosion. In 2008, another incident killed two, which the National Transportation Safety Board later determined that corrosion to an underground gas line resulted in a leak that led to the explosion.
Last year, another house in the area exploded and the cause of that fire is “unclear.” While there were no fatalities, the family was left displaced.
“We need answers. We need to know why this is happening,” neighbor Justin Newman told WTAE. “It’s sad that people lost their lives and we don’t have answers. We need answers for these families, we need answers for this community.”
Chief of the Holiday Park Volunteer Fire Department James Sims told reporters that the latest blast was the worst he had ever seen.
“I’ve been to six house explosions in Plum, and this is the worst I’ve seen in 47 years or 48 years, the worst one, just the amount of damage,” said Sims, who is also the Emergency Management Coordinator for Plum Borough.