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What you need to know for 01/17/2017

Survivors upset at sentence of man in fatal blast

Survivors upset at sentence of man in fatal blast

The survivors of a house explosion last year were not satisfied by Thursday's sentencing of the man
Survivors upset at sentence of man in fatal blast
Steven McComsey was sentenced to 1 to 3 years in state prison on Thursday in Washington County Court in the deaths of six people and injuries to five others in an explosion at a house in Salem.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

The survivors of a house explosion last year were not satisfied by Thursday's sentencing of the man held responsible for the resulting six deaths.

Steven McComsey, 34, was sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison in connection with the July 13, 2011, explosion in Salem. While he has denied responsibility for the deadly blast, McComsey pleaded no contest last month to one count of criminally negligent homicide as part of an Alford deal. Under the terms of the deal, McComsey admitted he would likely be convicted based on the evidence assembled by the prosecution, but did not admit he caused the explosion.

After the sentencing, Kim Ryan, whose sister Tammy Palmer died in the explosion, was unhappy with the conclusion of this tragedy.

"We didn't even get any closure," she said. "We still wonder, did he do it or is he just accepting this? I don't understand. I don't believe he would have [taken responsibility] if he didn't have anything to do with it."

Investigators believe the explosion was caused by a propane leak in the basement that was ignited by a water heater switch. The eight-count indictment against McComsey concluded he didn't try to kill anyone, but that his reckless actions caused the leak.

Killed in the blast along with Palmer, 41, who was McComsey’s girlfriend, were Darrell Durham, 20; Durham's 2-month-old daughter, Niah; Robert Sanford, 16, McComsey's nephew; Lawrence Berg Jr., 19; and Clarissa Lyn Porlier, 19, who was visiting. The baby's mother, Alicia Berg, who was 21 at the time, was badly injured but survived, as did Brianna Berg, 17, Daniel Wilcox, 43. and Chelsey Wilcox, 15. The Wilcoxes were also visiting the residence.

In the courtroom prior to sentencing, Linda Porlier spoke on behalf of her daughter Clarissa, whom she described as her rock.

"Nowhere in any of the parenting classes that I have taken do they prepare you for losing a child," she said. "Lessons on how to bury that precious angel ... do not exist."

The victims' friends and families cried audibly in the courtroom, as Porlier noted how her daughter thought the number 13 was lucky, even though she died on the 13th and McComsey was sentenced on the 13th. She said the loss of her daughter created a void this holiday season and put an end to their plans to open a bakery together.

"No sentence could be long enough," she told the judge. "At least some consequence is better than nothing."

Her only request was that McComsey be denied visitation privileges during his first year of incarceration, as she said it would allow him to feel "some of the same pain that we will live with for the rest of our lives."

McComsey declined to speak on his behalf before sentencing. He also wouldn't hold eye contact with Porlier, which disappointed her and made her feel like he was shirking his responsibility.

After the sentencing, Alicia Berg was emotionally distraught. She cried loudly and complained about the sentencing.

"He took our mother [Tammy Palmer] and my two-month old daughter," Berg said. "I never get to see her crawl or nothing. It's not fair."

After Palmer's death, Ryan revealed that she attempted to cut her own throat because of depression. The failed attempt required 150 stitches.

"I didn't know how to deal with it," she said of losing her sister, who was also her best friend.

Berg's memory of the incident is spotty, recalling a loud screech before the explosion. She had been about to call the fire department after the group in the house had noticed the smell of gas from the basement.

"The next thing I know, I woke up on the ground," Berg said. "Then I heard screaming, popping."

The survivors are still trying to wrap their heads around why McComsey might have messed with the propane in the basement. The consensus was that "he was getting back at the landlord," who they had trouble with, but they couldn't understand why he wouldn't warn them about his plan.

They think he was likely involved, as McComsey initially told Palmer not to call the police when they noticed the gas. Alicia Berg's sister Brianna, 19, said she should have realized at that point that McComsey was responsible for the explosion. She explained that everyone close to McComsey had believed in him and treated him like family, which was why they couldn't initially accept that he was responsible for six deaths.

"It makes me feel like a big fool," she said.

Brianna Berg, who was out of the house at the time of the explosion, still marvels at the fact she was able to survive. The force of the blast knocked her against a car and put a piece of the roof on top of her.

"I was saved by the roof, because there were cinder blocks right on top of the roof where my head would have been," Brianna said.

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