Five members of a family — four children and an adult — were killed by a massive explosion that obliterated their home in Pottstown on Thursday evening. Two others were hospitalized, officials said Friday.
Francine White, 67, Alana Wood, 13, Jeremiah White, 12, Nehemiah White, 10, and Tristan White, 8, were killed in the explosion, Pottstown police said Friday.
Eugene White, 44, and Kristina Matuzsan, 32 — who were married, their Facebook profiles indicated — were injured and remained in critical condition. Officials did not say how the seven victims are related.
The family lived in the home on the 400 block of Hale Street in the Montgomery County borough, officials said, which they had bought just a year ago. The adjoining twin home was vacant.
The deadly blast occurred around 8 p.m. on Thursday evening, destroying the two homes and damaging at least six other houses. Neighbors described a thundering boom shaking the night, as if a bomb had gone off.
“I was in my living room and heard the most horrific explosion I’ve ever heard. Things shaking,” said Tracy Chalcraft, who lives about 100 yards away and said the impact caused things to fly off the walls. “It was pretty terrifying. Never heard or felt anything like that.”
The source of the explosion remained unknown Friday, and Pottstown officials had few details at a news briefing.
Many in the area raised questions about the possibility of a gas leak. Four current or former residents said the neighborhood had frequently smelled of natural gas in the past and that they had sometimes called inspectors to the neighborhood.
Peco Energy, which serves the borough, had not received any calls reporting a natural gas odor in the three days before the incident. Peco was still reviewing records to determine whether the utility had received any calls prior to that time, company spokesperson Mayra H. Bergman said in a statement Friday evening.
The twin houses were not hooked up to natural gas through Peco, but there are natural gas mains in the area.
“There has been no evidence at this time of a leak hazardous to the structure. Our investigation is ongoing,” Bergman said.
The explosion shook houses all along Hale Street and Butler Avenue. It sent wreckage flying as far as a block away, coating the neighborhood in dust and debris.
Six to 10 homes were affected, authorities estimated, with the Red Cross reporting assistance to seven families and Peco reporting 10 homes without electric service as of Friday night. The residents will remain displaced until inspectors have determined whether their houses are safe to occupy.
Investigators, including police, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, on Friday were canvassing the scene of the explosion, working to document the damage.
“It was pretty devastating,” said Pottstown Fire Chief Frank Hand, describing the force of the blast.
Hale Street is blocks from Pottstown High School, northeast of the center of the borough. A onetime steel town, the borough of about 23,000 residents lies along the Schuylkill, about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Eugene White bought the three-bedroom house on Hale Street for just under $150,000 in May 2021, according to Montgomery County property records.
He and Matuzsan met in 2012 and were married in 2019, according to their Facebook profiles. The four children appeared in family portraits they posted to social media. Neighbors said the young children would often play outside.
On Friday, a massive tangle of wreckage covered the area where their house once stood. Shocked and grieving neighbors gathered nearby. The street was blocked off for investigation. Debris was strewn across the area — splintered wood, stray clothing, and other rubble. Insulation covered front lawns, houses, and cars.
The jolt caused by the explosion seemed as strong as an earthquake, said Joanne Murray, who lives up the hill from the destroyed homes.
“I honestly thought a car hit our house,” she said. “That’s how loud it was in the house, and that’s what it felt like.”
Monica Chestnut and her daughter, who were watching TV when they heard it, went outside to see what had happened and found the air was clouded by the fallout. When the dust settled, it became clear that the neighboring house had been destroyed. Neighbors were frantically running out of their homes.
Where the house had been blasted apart, a person was digging through the rubble, Chestnut said. She heard a woman’s voice repeatedly calling for help.
“It’s petrifying,” she said.
Searching for a cause
Investigators were working to determine the source of the explosion. They were “looking into” whether the area had a frequent gas odor or other gas issues, said borough manager Justin Keller.
Keller and Hand said at the afternoon news conference that they had not had time to pull property or utility records that would indicate whether or not there had been gas-related complaints or issues in the neighborhood.
Late Friday afternoon, Pottstown borough officials said in a statement that they did not plan to provide more information about the blast until investigators had determined its cause.
Earlier in the day, Hand, the fire chief, told reporters the investigation was a slow, meticulous process.
“For us to say anything about what we know and what we don’t know wouldn’t make sense for us to talk about right now,” Hand said. “We haven’t had the chance to look at a lot of things yet because the ATF — the whole scene is being documented.”
A propane tank was found on the property after the blast. Authorities did not know what it was for; the ATF contacted the propane vendor to find out, Hand said.
Peco crews will remain on the scene to help investigators, Bergman said. The investigation includes inspections of natural gas mains, service lines, and natural gas meters. It will include a “wide area” to make sure no other homes or equipment are damaged, she said.
Ryan and Amber Nagel, who lived in the adjoining twin until 2020, and nearby neighbors Joanne Murray and Dorothy Auman all said gas odor had been a recurring problem on the block for years. They each said they recalled visits by Peco workers who sometimes said no gas was detected.
Murray, who has lived up the hill since 2007, said it’s been an ongoing issue. She said she smelled gas when walking past the twin homes as recently as three or four months ago.
There are 10 homes within a 100-foot radius of the White family’s home, about the number Hand estimated had been affected by the blast. About 100 homes sit within a 500-foot radius, satellite images indicate.
The Nagels, who moved out because they were getting divorced, said their unit was locked and vacant. It had recently gone into foreclosure, said the couple. They were in the neighborhood Friday talking with residents, who’d gathered nearby.
They moved out before the White family moved in. A former neighbor called the Nagels on Thursday night to tell them what had happened; Ryan Nagel went to the scene and was interviewed by investigators, he said. Amber Nagel was distraught.
“If we weren’t divorced, we would’ve been putting our kids to bed. We would have still been in that house,” she said.
On Friday, families displaced from their homes were receiving assistance from the Red Cross and finding friends or family to stay with. Engineers were poised to inspect all the homes on the block.
A chunk of drywall flew so far it knocked down her fence, Murray reported. And in Chalcraft’s home, the force of the blast sent nails popping through her ceiling and walls, creating cracks and holes.
“Two [homes] completely destroyed. The other homes have damage that we’re assessing,” said Keller, the borough manager. “These could be cracks or broken windows, but [we’re] trying to make sure that the structure of those buildings is sound.”
Staff writers Marina Affo, Max Marin, and Andrew Maykuth contributed to this article.