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Death toll at 5 in Salem, N.Y., house explosion

July 14, 2011
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NEAL P. GOSWAMI
Staff Writer
SALEM, N.Y. — The death toll in Wednesday’s house explosion rose to five Thursday, after two additional victims, including a baby girl, succumbed to injuries suffered in the blast, police said.

Investigators look over what remains of a two-story home in Salem, N.Y.

The powerful blast, heard for several miles, completely leveled the two-story home at 4383 Route 29 shortly after noon on Wednesday. An investigation is ongoing and the property is considered a crime scene, according to Lt. John Agresta with the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations.

“State police will hold down the scene until the district attorney’s office tells us we can let go of the scene,” Agresta said. “It’s a criminal investigation until it’s determined otherwise, whether it’s an accident or not. That’s why we’re holding down the scene.”

Police said 11 residents or guests were in or around the home when the explosion occurred. Three people were pronounced dead at the scene: Tammy Palmer, 41, and Robert Sanford, 16, both residents of the home, and Clarissa Lyn Porlier, 19, a guest at the home.

Nineteen-year-old Lawrence Berg Jr., 19, died overnight, and 2-month-old Niyah Lynn Durham died Thursday morning, according to police.

Six other people remained hospitalized with unknown injuries. They were transported to various hospitals with unknown injuries, including Southwest Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, Vt. They are:

• Steven McComsey, 32, a resident;
• Daniel H. Wilcox, 43, a guest;
• Alicia Berg, 21, a resident;
• Brianna Berg, 17, a resident;
• Chelsey Wilcox, 15, a guest; and,
• Darrell Durham, 20, a resident.

Investigators were going through a painstaking process Thursday of sorting through each piece of rubble, looking for clues as to why the blast occurred. The explosion spread debris several hundred feet from the home, which is situated about a quarter mile from the junction with Route 22.

Investigators had cleared debris back to the property line by Thursday afternoon and were focusing their attention on the basement.

“Now we’re concentrating our efforts on the actual foundation, the basement area of the house,” Agresta said. “We’re removing debris, analyzing it as it’s removed, looking at all appliances and such that were within that basement to analyze them and either rule them out or say that they may be suspect for the cause of this.”

Clothing and debris remained hanging from trees Thursday. A pile of clothing, with a teddy bear on top, lay on the ground next to a corn field across the street from the rubble.

Investigators with the New York State Police, the Washington County Bureau of Fire Fighters Investigation Unit and members of the Salem Fire Department remained on scene and continued to pick through the remnants of the home.

Investigators indicated the explosion was likely related to a gas leak. A propane tank remained, seemingly unscathed, next to the foundation.

Questions began to arise Thursday about whether the landlord was aware of problems with gas odors or leaks prior to the explosion.

“I am aware that he learned the morning of. I believe the tenants called him and stated that they could smell gas,” New York State Police Capt. John McCarthy said.
Investigators declined to elaborate on what the landlord may have known, or how long the landlord may have known about possible issues before the blast occurred.

“We’ve deposed as many people as can speak from the residence, and we’re gathering all that information but I’m not going to release what was actually said at this time,” Agresta said.

Daniel Dagostino, an attorney with Martin, Harding & Mazzotti LLP, said he has been retained by Lawrence Berg, a father and grandfather to some of those killed and injured in the blast. He said the firm is also looking into the circumstances surrounding the explosion for personal injury and wrongful death cases.

“They’re conducting an extensive investigation. We’re also conducting an investigation,” he said. “We’ll be looking into the cause and origin of the explosion.”
Dagostino said he believes the landlord was aware of problems with gas at the home. “My understanding is that there was knowledge by the landlord of problems previous to this incident,” he said.

It is too early to tell if the blast will warrant criminal charges, Agresta said. “It’s a preliminary investigation. We’ve still got to determine exactly what caused the explosion and then we’ll work our way back from that.”

It remains unclear how long it will take for investigators to determine why the blast occurred, according to Agresta.

“There’s no timeline on something like this. You never know what you’re going to run into,” he said.

Many in the small town of Salem were still shaken from the previous day’s blast.

“It shook the building,” said a female employee named Barbara at Bob’s Lunch, a restaurant about a quarter mile from the home. “I thought it was this building.

The employee said a few customers at the small eatery ran down to the site.

“I ran out to the side of the road and all you could see was black smoke and the debris flying,” she said. “All the sudden it was total chaos.”

Salem Fire Chief Bob Graham said the scene was unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. “Thirty years in the fire service, and I’ve never had anything looking like this in Salem. Never seen it anywhere, only on TV,” he said.

Graham also described a chaotic scene, but credited rescue workers for their efforts to search for and treat victims.

“It was completely leveled and burning,” he said. “When I got here they told there was possibly two that had passed and maybe a third.”

Graham said most of the firefighters in his department were veterans and had experienced difficult scenes before. He said he was concerned about a few new members, however. Firefighters’ well-being will be monitored, he said.

“We’ll keep an eye on them over the next month or so and see if they’re having any health problems or mental problems, and if they are, we will seek treatment for them and help them out,” Graham said.

Police said they were expecting to reopen Route 29 Thursday evening.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

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