State police say a buildup of propane gas fueled a huge explosion in a Salem residence last month, killing six people and destroying the house.
In a statement released Thursday night, investigators indicated a switch on a water heater in the basement of the two-story home on Route 29 was the “most probable ignition source” for the lethal blast. They believe propane from one of two 100-gallon tanks stored outside the home may have leaked toward where the switch was located at the northeast corner of the basement.
“During the course of this investigation, it was determined that there was a reported event involving the discharge of propane within the basement of this residence just prior to this explosion,” Troop G spokeswoman Trooper Maureen Tuffey said in a news release. “The most probable ignition source identified was the pressure switch located on the domestic water system located on the basement floor in the northeast corner of the basement.”
State police indicated their investigation into the blast is continuing. No charges have been filed in the case.
Residents of the rented home complained of smelling gas prior to the explosion. This claim was reiterated a week later by an attorney representing the estates of four of the deceased residents.
Preliminary results of the state police investigation determined that only one propane tank was being used at the time of the blast. The tank was fueling a water heater in the west portion of the basement and a cooking stove located near the east wall of the kitchen on the first floor. The tank also had a line reserved for the future installation of a propane clothes dryer in the basement, where an electric dryer was being used by the residents.
An inactive tank was located on the rear of the home and was reported to serve an efficiency apartment in the house. That tank hadn’t been used since March 2010, when the efficiency was removed and the home converted back to a single residence.
Records indicated the active tank was filled with 83.5 gallons of propane on June 2. The tank was weighed July 15 — two days after the explosion — and found to contain about 72.14 gallons of propane.
Investigators said the inactive tank was last “topped off” with 26.4 gallons of propane on Jan. 16, 2010. That tank was found to contain approximately 24.52 gallons of propane after the blast.
While the home had seven residents, there were 11 people in and around the building when it exploded shortly after noon July 13. There were two overnight guests and two people who stopped by shortly before the blast, which shot debris more than 50 feet in the air and across Route 29.
A witness living across the street described the home as lifting in the air and crumbling forward. Concrete from the blast smashed into a ranch-style residence roughly 100 feet away.
Neighbors and bystanders ran to help the injured and pull them from the flaming rubble. Within minutes, dozens of firefighters arrived to douse the flames and start searching for other survivors.
By the following day, five people had died from injures sustained in the blast. The dead included Niah Durham, a 2-month-old child revived at the scene, and Clarissa Lyn Porlier, 19, who was among the four people who stopped to visit.
Robert Sanford, 16, Lawrence Berg Jr., 19, and Tammy Palmer, 41, all of whom lived in the home, were the other victims. About a week later, Darrell Durham, 20, the father of the infant, died of his injuries at the Westchester Medical Center.
Survivors include Daniel Wilcox and his daughter, Chelsey, Stanford’s uncle, Steven McComsey, and Brianna Berg. Alicia Berg, the mother of Niah Durham, also survived, but remains in Albany Medical Center Hospital, having undergone multiple surgeries.
Dan Dagostino, an attorney representing Lawrence Berg Sr. and the estates of several people killed in the blast, said he’s continuing to monitor the results of the state police investigation. He continues to maintain the explosion was preventable.
“We still feel there are people responsible for this, and it could have been prevented,” he said Thursday after reviewing the preliminary results of the state police investigation. “We know obviously there was a problem there and [the owner of the home] didn’t do anything about it.”