A West Haverstraw home was leveled and two volunteer firefighters and two Orange and Rockland Utilities workers were injured when natural gas from a main ruptured by private contractors working on the street exploded this afternoon, according to emergency officials.
The blast left one family homeless and residents of about 100 homes in the neighborhood just off Route 9W seeking temporary shelter until they are cleared to return to their homes. Additionally, the blast has done enough damage to three other homes that inspectors are not allowing families to return to those units tonight.
West Haverstraw Fire Chief George Zayas said the disaster could have been much worse had firefighters not begun an evacuation of the area immediately upon arriving at the 12:13 p.m. call about a ruptured gas line on Zarriello Lane in the Village Fairground II development. The injured firefighters were evacuating residents when one of the homes exploded.
Zayas said the firefighters were seriously injured, with burns and broken bones, but they are expected to recover. Both injured firefighters are veterans of the West Haverstraw Fire Department, including one who narrowly escaped death in a fire just over a year ago.
Two other firefighters were treated for exhaustion in the hours after the blast when volunteers combed through the rubble and worked to extinguish burning debris.
Two O&R workers who were called to check on the broken gas main were injured in the explosion. However, O&R spokesman Michael Donovan said the two men went back to work right after the blast to shut down a valve that would prevent the possibility of other explosions.
Donovan said the workers were taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern and Nyack Hospital for treatment.
The gas main was broken, Donovan said, by a contracting crew doing work on the street for Verizon. Donovan said workers from FGC Communications in Cortland Manor were using a pneumatic tool that shoots a metal device known as a bullet through the earth under the street. However, Donovan said the bullet slammed into a gas main.
O&R is investigating whether the gas main had been marked off in advance of the underground work on the street. The type of device used by the contractors is employed to avoid digging up pavement to install communication lines.
Donovan said the gas main break did not cause an immediate explosion or plume of gas. Instead, he said it appears the gas remained underground and seeped into nearby storm drains, which in turn is believed to be the cause of gas getting into the home — leading to the explosion.
Rockland County Fire and Emergency Services Director Gordon Wren Jr. said the blast damaged the structure of the adjoining unit in the townhouse development and damaged a nearby unit.
West Haverstraw village officials, along with fire and utility crews, were inspecting the nearby homes to determine whether residents could return to damaged buildings. O&R crews were making repairs to the gas main and checking for any additional build up of gas.
Donovan said O&R was hoping to have gas and electric service restored to the 100 homes in the immediate area by midnight. The blast led O&R to cut electric service to about 5,000 customers in the West Haverstraw area along Route 9W for several hours as a precaution. The blast also led to the shut down of Route 9W in the West Haverstraw area for several hours.
The blast led to a massive response by Rockland volunteer firefighters and ambulance crews, in addition to police and county emergency officials. The parking lot of the Hi-Tor Lanes bowling alley was turned into a command center, where dozens of fire and ambulance vehicles, as well as utility vehicles, staged to cope with the disaster.
Volunteers of the American Red Cross were assisting residents temporarily displaced by the explosion, as well as the family that was left homeless by the blast.
The disaster began when the West Haverstraw Fire Department was alerted to a gas main break and had firefighters on the scene by 12:17 p.m. Chief Zayas said the call, at first, seemed routine but as he and other firefighters arrived he decided to evacuate the entire neighborhood as a precaution.
Zayas said West Haverstraw residents cooperated with the evacuation and quickly moved to shopping centers along Route 9W. He said the evacuation likely prevented many more people from being injured.
Local government officials arranged for school buses to take evacuees to Haverstraw Town Hall, however, many of the evacuees stayed in the area watching as emergency crews worked. When power was restored to the area outside the blast zone, evacuees were allowed to go into Hi-Tor Lanes to stay warm, get food and to talk with emergency and Red Cross officials.
As darkness fell, many residents of the townhouse development sought permission to go to their houses for reasons such as checking on pets or to pick up medicine. However, police and fire officials kept access to the area limited to utility and emergency workers because the debris from the destroyed house was still burning and O&R crews were still working on the gas main.
The family whose home was destroyed was taken by police and firefighters to see the wreckage. In the wake of the blast, firefighters were uncertain whether anyone was home at the destroyed house at the time of the explosion. A special search team was called in to check the wreckage, however, the homeowners were contacted by telephone and officials learned that no one had been home at the time of the blast.
Fire officials said that O&R workers and inspectors would be going house-to-house in the neighborhood to check whether it is safe for residents to return.
Fire department operations at the scene of the blast were declared completed at 7:45 p.m. At the same time, families were being escorted back to units in the complex one-by-one.
Inspectors have determined that one of the buildings damaged in the blast has significant damage. Tonight, residents of that building and two others damaged by the blast were not being allowed back into their units.
Wren said the West Haverstraw officials will be determining the extent of the damaged to the most-severely affected unit.
Red Cross spokeswoman Carolyn Sherwin said her agency is working with the four affected families to get them shelter and other assistance. She said about 300 people from 58 families had sought shelter at the bowling alley until they could start heading home.
Sherwin and Wren both praised the operators of Hi-Tor Lanes for opening the bowling alley to those affected by the blast, serving up plenty of pizza and french fries as they waited. The public address system at the bowling alley was used by local officials to give the displaced residents updates on the status of their homes.
Another close call
In addition to the damage and injuries from the blast, fire officials said they were worried about emotional scars from the incident on volunteer firefighters who witnessed two of their own nearly killed.
Chief Zayas said the incident was particularly disturbing because longtime firefighter Ken Patterson was injured, along with longtime firefighter Jerry Knapp, who also serves as an instructor at the Rockland County Fire Training Center. It was on Jan. 14, 2011, that Patterson narrowly escaped death when fellow West Haverstraw firefighter Andrew Kolesar rescued Patterson from an illegally-converted house at 333 Westside Ave., Haverstraw, that had caught fire.
Patterson lost his way inside the house and was running out of air in his portable tank. Patterson was in the house because he feared a resident was trapped inside. The incident led to a renewed call for tougher enforcement of building regulations throughout Rockland County.
In today’s blast, fire officials said Patterson was thrown about 30 feet by the force of the explosion. He and Knapp were both reported to be in intensive care for burns and broken bones. Tonight, Knapp is expected to go home after treatment. However, Patterson is expected to remain overnight at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla.
Zayas said volunteer firefighters were being debriefed about the incident this evening and that specially-trained crisis counselors were being brought in to work with firefighters.
Here's the earlier running account of the gas explosion from Patch:
4:55 PM: Ken Patterson and Jery Knapp, two West Haverstraw firefighters injured when a house exploded as they approached to evacuate people after a call of a gas main break, are in intensive care.
Two other firefighters were also treated for minor injuries, officials said, bringing the toll of injured to six.
Debriefings are taking place now and throughout the evening for the other volunteer fire company members who were at the scene when the house exploded.
The adjacent house suffered structural damage in the blast, and a nearby townhouse unit was damaged by flying debris.
Families from the neighborhood are being brought to Hi-Tor Lanes, a nearby bowling area, which has become a reception area. Red Cross volunteers and local officials are helping those families and the Red Cross has mental health experts on standby in case they are needed.
Orange & Rockland expects to have heat and light restored to the neighborhood by midnight. Each family will have to be escorted to their home to have the gas turned back on.
4:35 PM: Power has been restored to all but the immediate area in the development where gas flowing secretly into a house caused an explosion that injured four.
Traffic is moving along Route 9W, which had been shut down as firefighters battled the blaze.
Electric and gas service should be turned back on for the 100 or so townhouses in the Village Fairground development by midnight, officials said.
Crews from Orange & Rockland Utilities are still testing storm drains and other places where gas could have pooled after it escaped a gas main damaged by a contractor.
Meanwhile, firefighters are shifting the wreckage of the house and pouring water on pockets of embers in the pile of debris to make sure the fire doesn't rekindle.
3:55 PM: The injured utility workers were taken to Nyack and Good Samaritan hospitals for evaluation and treatment.
Meanwhile, Red Cross volunteers are helping the family displaced by the blast, which utterly destroyed the Zarriello Lane home. No one in the family was there at the time of the explosion, which took place just after noon; they arrived at about 3:30 p.m. and were escorted by fire officials to view the scene.
3:25 PM: Two Orange and Rockland utility workers were injured along with two West Haverstraw firefighters in a house explosion this afternoon. The condition of the utility workers is unknown.
O&R spokesman Michael Donovan said a gas main was damaged by Verizon contractors who were using a pneumatic drill underground. The two O&R workers were investigating the main break.
It appears the gas pooled underground and got into a storm drain, that's why the house exploded, Donovan said. Officials don't know how long the gas had been pooling at the house.
They are checking through the neighborhood because they believe there may be gas elsewhere. The gas has been shut off to about 100 customers in the immediate area. Power has been shut off to about 5,000 O&R customers.
O&R is investigating whether the contractor, identified by officials as F.G.C. of 97 Croton Ave. in Cortlandt Manor, called in advance to get marking for the gas main.
3:05 PM: Power is off to village businesses in West Haverstraw after a gas explosion destroyed a house in the Village Fairground development.
2:53 PM: Two volunteer firefighters were injured and a neighborhood evacated after a gas explosion destroyed a house in West Haverstraw.
Fire officials said a construction crew apparently hit a gas main setting off the explosion. The two firefighters were injured as they were going toward the door to evacuate residents.
One of the firefighters was the man who was nearly killed in a Jan. 14, 2011 house fire in West Haverstraw. The other is a longtime volunteer and Rockland County Fire Training Center instructor.
The more seriously injured firefighter, Ken Patterson, was taken to Westhester County Medical center for treatment of burns. Rockland County Fire and Emergency Services director Gordon Wren Jr said Patterson was blown about 30 feet back when the house exploded. The other firefighter, Jerry Knapp, was taken to Nyack Hospital for treatment.
The disaster has led officials to close off a section of Route 9W so traffic is being diverted away from the immediate area.
West Haverstraw Fire Chief George Zayas said they got the fire call at 12:13 p.m. and were there in a few minutes.
"A technical rescue team has been called in to search the demolished home to check and make sure no one was in the house," Zayas said.
Residents in the area cooperated with the evacuation and are being taken by school buses to Haverstraw Town Hall, Zayas said. When the area is deemed safe they will be allowed back home.
Orange and Rockland Utility crews are working with firefighters. Zayas said the Rockland County Bureau of Criminal Identification has been called in to assist with the investigation.
From earlier reports:
Firefighters from throughout northern, central and southern Rockland County have been called in to battle an apparent gas main explosion in West Haverstraw.
Early reports indicate the explosion may have been the result of contractors working in the area and possibly striking a large gas line. Firefighters are reporting that it appears a house has been affected by the explosion.
In addition to firefighters in the area Zarriello Lane off Route 9W, firefighters are staging at the bowling alley on Route 9W in West Haverstraw and at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona.
The explosion was east of Route 9W, just south of Samsondale Plaza.