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Tangle of lawsuits delaying cleanup of Pottstown explosion site nearly 2 years later

Dozens of lawyers must meet and agree before progress is possible.

On Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, the site of the home explosion on Hale Street looked much the same as it has for the past two years. (Evan Brandt — Media첥Ƶ Group)
On Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, the site of the home explosion on Hale Street looked much the same as it has for the past two years. (Evan Brandt — Media첥Ƶ Group)
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POTTSTOWN — It’s been nearly two years since a home exploded on Hale Street, killing five people, severely injuring two more and traumatizing the entire Chicken Hill neighborhood.

The explosion killed Francine White, 67, Alana Wood, 13, Jeremiah White, 12, Nehemiah White, 10, and Tristan White, 8 and injured two survivors, Eugene White and Wood’s mother, Kristina Matuzsan.

And it’s been nearly a year since the was released — that the Public Utility Commission has ruled out natural gas as the cause of the explosion.

Since then, neighbors and local officials have expressed frustration about the apparent lack of progress in the investigation and the failure to clean up the ever-present evidence of the tragedy.

Monday night, Borough Manager Justin Keller offered some insight into the primary reason for the delay — lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.

Explosion remnants
An explosion on Hale Street in Pottstown on Thursday, May 26, 2022, killed five people and damaged neighboring homes.(Media첥Ƶ Group File Photo)

Asked by Councilman Joseph Kirkland to provide to the public the same update Keller had provided to him privately, Keller offered the following:

“With something like this, there can be a lot of litigation and lawsuits that result, coming from a lot of different directions. and through the course of that, there’s a lot of attorneys that are involved with this particular issue. There’s a lot of investigators, with governmental entities and private, through the attorneys, that are looking into this matter and trying to understand what the cause is and, from the attorneys’ standpoint, who is at fault,” Keller said.

“Because of all the parties that are involved, each step they take; each time they have to remove something from the site; or to get the site cleaned up, or conduct testing; all the attorneys have to meet, they have to agree and they have to set a date,” Keller said.

“So things in that regard are moving at a snail’s pace, but I want to assure everyone that things are still moving forward and we’re doing what we can to press them to try to get the site at least cleaned up, because we think its been more than due time for that to happen,” said Keller.

Michael A. Budner, an attorney with the Philadelphia firm of Saltz Mongeluzzi and Bendesky, represents the estates of the victims and the two survivors. He said a lawsuit has been brought against PECO, which then “brought in” AmeriGas and “a manufacturer,” meaning “there are five distinct defendants.”

In addition to his clients, those in surrounding homes that were damaged and, in some cases, condemned, and their insurance companies and their insurance companies’ lawyers, are all involved.

“All together there’s about 10 law firms and two- to three-dozen lawyers,” Budner said.

The next major step in the investigation, he said, is to scan the site with ground-penetrating radar, or GPR.

“In order to do that, the ground can’t be frozen and the site has to be swept clean, but we want to do that only a day or two before the GPR so things don’t blow onto the site before the scan,” he said.

Discussions among all the parties to schedule the GPR are now underway and once a date is set, the date to clean up the site can occur, Budner explained.

This drone photo taken the evening of the Pottstown explosion shows the scope of the devastation.(Media첥Ƶ Group file)
ADDISON GEORGE / SPECIAL TO THE MORNING CALL
This drone photo taken the evening of the Pottstown explosion shows the scope of the devastation.(Media첥Ƶ Group file)

So far, the only information made public about the cause of the blast, which damaged homes for several blocks around the site, is what it is not. Last March the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement concluded that the cause of the explosion was not natural gas from the PECO gas line in front of the house.

However, unlike other agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) or the federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Agency (ATF), the PUC “does not issue a written report, said Budner. They have been kept in the loop on the investigation and, should any additional relevant evidence be discovered, the PUC could re-open its investigation, he said.

The ATF “continues its ongoing investigation into the matter,” according to Keller. “Despite our repeated inquiries for updates, they have emphasized that no information will be disclosed until the cause is definitively determined. As of now, we have not been provided with a specific timeline for their findings.”

Budner similarly said all parties have been cooperating with the ATF “but they have not informed any of us about their progress.”

He said it is the parents and property owners who have paid to put up the temporary fencing and screening at the site. “We can’t put in fence posts because that would disturb the ground, which is the focus of the case.”

As for the parents themselves, they continue to grapple with their injuries, both physical and spiritual.

“They are doing the best they can,” Budner said. “Understand they were both catastrophically injured and the mom ultimately had to have a leg amputated, so that’s a lot in and of itself before you even get to their trauma and grief. This is a nightmare they relive over and over again. I only hope they can find some kind of peace someday.”

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