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Oneonta’s West End Recovering from House Explosion

A deadly house explosion Saturday, Dec. 9 left a neighborhood in Oneonta’s West End stunned as town leaders and emergency response crews worked into Monday to return residents to their homes. The cause of the explosion, which leveled the two-story house at 18 Richards Ave., was escaping gases that came into contact with an ignition source, the Otsego County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday.

Desmond D. Moan, 60, who lived in the house, died in the blast. On Sunday afternoon, Sheriff Richard Devlin said that the incident was accidental and a result of human error by the deceased resident.

“Upon information gained from examination of the scene, interviews and forensic examinations,” Devlin said in a follow-up statement Monday, “our investigation concluded that an action by the resident resulted in a non-intended natural gas leak.”

Home inspections and damage assessment is still ongoing, he said, but currently there have been more than 50 property parcels and more than 60 residents and their families affected. Initially, 43 residents were displaced.

“At present, the Otsego County Sheriff’s Office is providing security to the homes and residences in the affected area,” Devlin said. “Additionally, the sheriff’s office is providing assistance to the town of Oneonta and the Otsego County Office of Emergency Services in their support of their tasks related to the incident.”

Devlin said in Sunday’s statement that the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control with assistance from the sheriff’s office led the investigation. The town of Oneonta, the city of Oneonta Fire Department, Otsego County Office of Emergency Services, Otsego County Special Operations Team, New York State Police, NYSEG and the state Department of Public Services assisted in the investigation.

The property at 18 Richards Ave. is owned by CJMFD Enterprises, a business registered to 14 Chester St. in Oneonta. According to county property records, the three-bedroom house was built in 1900.

Sequence of events

According to a statement Sunday morning from the sheriff’s office, the Oneonta Fire Department and several mutual aid departments responded to the scene around 5:30 p.m. Saturday. Emergency crews found “multiple residential structures with severe damage and an active structure fire,” the release said.

The house at 20 Richards Ave. subsequently caught fire, while the house at 16 Richards Ave. was heavily damaged from blast debris. Police and firefighters evacuated residents from the area beginning at 6:40 p.m.

Once the fire was extinguished, the Sunday morning statement said, Moan was found dead. A neighboring resident received medical attention for minor injuries sustained during the explosion. City of Oneonta Mayor Mark Drnek said Saturday that “the hearts of all in the city go out to the families who have been so terribly impacted by this tragic event.”

State Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-District 51, called on Hochul Monday to provide state disaster aid resources to those affected by the explosion.

“My heart goes out to the families trying to pick up the pieces following the tragic home explosion in the town of Oneonta,” Oberacker said in a statement. “While a full investigation and damage assessment is ongoing, it is clear the costs to rebuild this neighborhood will be extremely high.”

The explosion damaged several houses and businesses in the West End. Polly Bailey, of 15 Richards Ave., said Saturday that the blast blew off her front door, while Tyler Coffin, 15, who was upstairs at Bailey’s home, said a piece of the ceiling fell on him.

At Daddy Al’s General Store on Chestnut Street, a front window on the east side of the storefront was broken. Witnesses described feeling a boom around the time of the explosion across the city of Oneonta and as far as Meridale in Delaware County. Others reported glass being blown out of windows.

Clean up, relief efforts

The area remained under investigation Sunday, as NYSEG worked on restoring utilities and county emergency operations officials worked to clean up the site of the explosion. Town of Oneonta Supervisor Randal Mowers declared a local state of emergency in the area around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, scheduled to be lifted 9 p.m. Dec. 14.

The affected area included all properties within the area bounded by Winney Hill Road to the west, Blanchard Avenue and Butler Street to the north, Jackson, Madison and Murdock avenues to the east and Chestnut Street to the south initially.

As of Monday, the restricted area had been adjusted to 13 properties on Richards Avenue, two on Butler Street and one on Jackson Avenue. Mowers said Monday that it will still be a couple of days before Richards Avenue reopens fully.

The Oneonta Town Hall was open to the public Sunday as town and county leaders worked to assess the immediate needs of neighborhood residents. Mowers said that town Code Enforcement Officer Paul Neske was instrumental in identifying the damaged houses, at least nine of which moved 5 to 8 inches off their foundations, with the help of a structural engineer who lives in the neighborhood.

“The town is very fortunate to have him,” Mowers said about Neske.

The only access to the area Sunday was through a command center set up at the corner of Richards Avenue and Chestnut Street by Dante’s Pizza. Residents were escorted to their homes by county emergency management personnel and a representative from NYSEG to clear the house before entering.

Mowers said Sunday that people were allowed to retrieve only essentials, such as pets and prescription medication, and not pack trucks with belongings. About 25 households sought help Sunday at the Town Hall. Town Board member Skylar Thompson said residents were concerned about the damage to their houses, what’s next in the process and when they could go back in.

“We’ve had people here pretty much all morning,” he said. “I’ve been here since 7:30 [a.m.] and people have been in and out.”

He said some of the evacuated people spent the night with family, friends and in hotels. Mike Jacobs, of 26 Richards Ave., said he was outside his house getting ready to close the garage for the night when he heard a bang.

“I think it stunned me a little bit, I didn’t really realize exactly what had happened,” he said, “and then I turned around and I saw the sky was orange.”

He walked down the driveway and saw a fire in the road.

“I thought a car exploded,” he said. “It was a piece of the house that had blown out.”

He heard the sirens as fire trucks arrived. At around 6:30 p.m., the power went off.

“We came outside and they had started to cordon off the area, and they kept saying, ‘you’ve got to move back, you’ve got to move back.’ and then about 7:30 [p.m.] or so they said, ‘you have to leave.’”

Jacobs was able to retrieve his CPAP machine, and then he, his wife, Cory, 17-year-old son TJ and their dogs went to the Hampton Inn, which he said was accommodating and “really made things easier last night.” Representatives from the Hampton Inn declined to comment on how many displaced residents it roomed, but said that the hotel is providing the rooms at a discount.

Community members took to social media to ask how they could help, inquiring about clothing donation and GoFundMe fundraisers. Elm Park United Methodist Church, located on Chestnut Street almost across the street from the intersection of Richards Avenue, changed its sign to read “Pray for Richards Ave.”

Source: The Daily Star