Gloversville, NY – Tonia Hoyt was playing dice with family members Monday night when the lights flickered. A few seconds later, she thought she was about to die.
An explosion had rocked her trailer on Elmwood Avenue Extension. Photographs fell off the top of the television and the walls. Dice flew off the table. Hoyt was thrown from her chair and ended up on the floor in darkness.
“I thought it was a hurricane,” she said.
She grabbed her boyfriend by the hands.
Then, silence. No dogs barking. No rain. No screaming.
What is that sound?
A faint voice.
“Help! Help!” Hoyt said she remembered hearing.
Hoyt ran outside and looked next door at the two-story home of Mike and Debbie McGrail. A wall had crumbled. Windows were blown out. Glass was in the street, 70 feet away. She heard voices from inside.
“Help us! Help!”
“Debbie! Get out!”
Inside, Debbie McGrail’s clothes were pinned under cement blocks.
“My pants are stuck!”
“Pull them off!”
Hoyt called 911 while her uncle and a family friend clawed through the rubble and went into the home. Mike McGrail Jr. jumped out of a second-story window. Mike and Debbie McGrail were pulled from the home, burned on their arms and hands and torsos.
Less than a minute later, a second explosion turned the home into a bonfire. Firefighters arrived just in time.
“Chunks of burning insulation hadn’t even hit the ground yet,” Berkshire Fire Chief Jim Wilder said.
Christopher McGrail arrived at his parents’ home soon after. He had been working at the family hot dog business Big Mike’s and could feel the explosion a mile away.
“I thought someone had banged on the window,” he said.
Stunned, Christopher McGrail walked toward his father, who had been loaded onto a stretcher. Mike McGrail, described affectionately by family and friends as a “clown,” motioned toward his home.
“I was getting sick of that house anyway,” he wisecracked to his son.
Over the next 12 hours, more than 50 firefighters from four companies would put out the blaze. Mike and Debbie McGrail would go to a Syracuse hospital for treatment on first- and second-degree burns to their upper bodies. Fire officials would determine a leaky propane tank started the blaze. And friends and family would sift through the rubble, looking for belongings in a charred mess that made a city dump look organized.
Wearing flip-flops, Tonia Hoyt climbed over glass and nails, collecting money and wilted photos. Her red toenails were caked with dirt, but the manicured nails on her right hand remained intact. She had chewed the nails off her left hand during the fire. Hoyt kneeled in what was once the basement, lifted a board and picked up a dirty, ceramic angel. Then she looked at it, dusted it off and put it in her pocket.
She kept on searching.