The couple rescued Monday night after their Elmwood Avenue home in the town of Johnstown blew up was listed in serious condition Tuesday in the burn unit at University Hospital in Syracuse.
Michael and Deborah McGrail, proprietors of Big Mike’s restaurant on North Pine Street, suffered extensive first- and second-degree burns, family friend Sandy Savage said Tuesday from the hospital.
“It’s going to be a long road,” Savage said.
Fulton County Sheriff Thomas J. Lorey said Mike McGrail — walking around at the scene in the moments after he and his wife were pulled from the basement area — said the family dog had apparently opened a valve on the propane line in the cellar.
Lorey said when Deborah McGrail smelled the gas shortly before 7 p.m., she called both 911 and her husband, who was still working at Big Mike’s. With the Berkshire Fire Department already on the way, Michael McGrail arrived and he and his wife went into the cellar, Lorey said.
Lorey said he was told Michael McGrail may have made an adjustment to his water heater, creating the spark that triggered the explosion.
But Savage said Deborah McGrail told her they had just expressed hope the water heater would not activate and then it did. Savage said the couple had opened windows and doors as a precaution, but the propane, which is heavier than air and accumulates in low areas, did not dissipate.
Lorey said the couple’s son, Michael McGrail Jr., was on the third floor of the house when the explosion occurred and found himself in the basement afterward. He was able to crawl out a remaining window frame, officials said.
Meanwhile, neighbors responding to the blast could hear the elder McGrails yelling from the cellar.
Dennis Hill, who was visiting relatives next door, began frantically pulling apart the debris until there was room over the basement wall to pull the McGrails to safety, his brother-in-law, Leo Hoyt, said.
Berkshire Chief James Wilder said it is unclear whether there were two explosions or one. The two 250-pound propane tanks installed in the rear of the home did not explode, officials said.
Wilder said the roof of the house blew off and pieces of insulation were still falling from the sky when firefighters arrived.
Hoyt estimated the roof may have blown as high as 80 feet.
It was not long after the explosion that fire engulfed the wreckage, Lorey said.
Lorey said one of his deputies, arriving moments after the blast, observed one of the two family dogs — the one believed to have caused the gas leak — on fire and managed to catch the animal and extinguish the flames. Lorey said the dog is being treated by an area veterinarian. The other dog escaped unscathed.
“It’s amazing anybody survived it,” Lorey said. He added that there is also a lesson to be imparted from this incident. Though Michael McGrail thought he was proceeding correctly, Lorey said, anyone encountering a gas leak should get out of the house and immediately call for assistance.
Lorey also pointed out that McGrail has a history of helping other people through such tragedies. “I’d like to see something happen like one of the reality TV shows coming to his aid,” the sheriff said.
Hoyt said it will be devastating when McGrail returns and sees what is left of the house he built.
“I know he knows his house is gone, but until he sees it … ”