Norristown, PA Natural Gas Explosion, Dec 1995


By Casey Combs
Associated Press Writer.

Philadelphia - A natural gas explosion in a suburban house killed two people Tuesday and critically injured a third. PECO Energy Co. later accepted full responsibility for the blast, saying its delay of nearly two hours in responding to a gas odor report was "unacceptable and regrettable."
MARGIE COGNATO, 75, and her 63-year-old brother, NUNZIO "BUTCH" LaPENTA, died in the early morning blast in Norristown, 16 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Stunned neighbors were evacuated until afternoon.
COGNATO'S husband, BENJAMIN, 76, was listed in critical condition at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland with second and third degree burns. Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries and released.
The source of the blast was traced to a ruptured 6-inch gas main adjacent to the sidewalk outside the home, said Corbin A. McNeill, Jr., president and chief executive of PECO. The gas migrated through the ground, entering openings to the basement such as drain lines and piping holes and ignited, he said.
"It filled the house because when the first (police) officers arrived, the house was totally in flames and collapsing," said Norristown Detective George DiPetrillo. "Flames were coming out of the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street."
McNeill said it took nearly two hours for a technician to be dispatched after a report of a gas odor. "This is unacceptable and regrettable," he said at a news conference Tuesday night at PECO headquarters here.
PECO received an odor call at 12:28 a.m. but did not dispatch a technician until 1:36. The explosion happened at 1:50 and no technician arrived at the scene until 2:15 a.m., McNeill said.
"While it will never be known if a more timely response would have prevented the tragedy that occurred, PECO Energy takes full responsibility
and extends the sincere sympathies of the entire company to the families
of those who died or were injured, and a full apology to those Norristown residents who were affected by the explosion," said McNeill.
The brother and sister who were killed were apparently sleeping in an upstairs bedroom because their bodies were found burned beyond recognition on top of mattresses. The house "fell right into the basement and the fire right on top of them," DiPetrillo said.
How the survivor got out, "nobody knows," DiPetrillo said. Firefighters
on the scene said they were "fighting
the fire and the guy comes out of the flames hollering for help," he said.
Police, fire and PECO investigators remained on the scene late Monday. McNeill said he did not know what effect, if any, a water main break in the area last week may have had in the rupturing of the gas main.
It also was not clear whether a communication breakdown, bad weather or a backlog of calls were to blame for the utility's slow response time.
"Clearly, there were breakdowns in the system somewhere," McNeill said.
"We'll have to investigate whether there are systematic issues that need to be addressed, and we'll take those actions after the completion of our investigation."
As a preliminary measure, PECO immediately beefed up its stuff of overnight technicians, McNeill said.
Charles and Charlotte Mandrachia, who lived in the adjacent home, escaped through their back door without injury. A Red Cross shelter was set up at a nearby church for about a hundred residents ordered to leave the surrounding square block.
James Gallagher, 23, who lives three doors down, was napping on the living room floor during a break in a wall-spackling project.
"I was awakened by this horrible bang...and I screamed at the sound," he said. Gallagher thought something had happened in his own house when a neighbor rushed over and told him to get out.
He said the close neighborhood was shaken. "The lady directly across the street from the explosion, she was in tears."

Standard Speaker Hazleton Pennsylvania 1995-12-20