DuBois, PA – By Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
DU BOIS, Pa. — As a bulldozer moved carefully through a pile of splintered two-by-fours and twisted white siding, Ronald Pifer spoke of a handmade card table with beautiful wooden inlays he’d given his brother as a gift 35 years ago.
It was the one thing he’d hoped to find of some personal value belonging to Paul Pifer, who along with his wife, Mary Ann, was killed Saturday morning in an explosion at their Clearfield County home.
Though Ronald Pifer didn’t have much hope of finding the table in one piece — parts of the home were scattered through at least three neighboring yards — he did find it, virtually unharmed, in a pile of debris leaning against the house next door.
Russell Whelpley, Mary Ann Pifer’s brother, found three Bibles his sister and her husband kept in their home. They also went untouched — even after a fire broke out in the rubble some 15 minutes after the explosion.
The two men spent most of yesterday afternoon at the site of the four-bedroom ranch house in Sandy Township, which the Pifers built when they retired in 1997. Paul Pifer, 71, worked as an accountant with IBM, and Mary Ann Pifer, 68, worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a registered nurse.
They lived in suburban Washington, D.C., before returning to the area, where the two had grown up just a quarter of a mile apart from each other in nearby Brockway, Jefferson County.
They would have been married 46 years on Sept. 2.
As Ronald Pifer and Whelpley reminisced about their family yesterday afternoon, crews continued working on the gas lines in the area. Service had already been restored to most of the homes in the well-kept, upscale development by Sunday night.
Bill Kerr, gas safety inspector for the state Public Utility Commission, said the investigation into the cause of the explosion was ongoing, but there was no danger of another explosion. He also said the probable source of the explosion had been located and eliminated, but would not elaborate.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board’s pipeline division were also at the scene and would likely take about two inches of pipe to Washington, D.C., for further examination, said agency spokesman Keith Holloway.
The NTSB investigates accidents involving interstate petroleum and natural gas transmission lines.
At least nine houses in the Sylvan Heights neighborhood were damaged by the 8:50 a.m. explosion.
The house next to the Pifers was hit the worst. The garage door was buckled, eaves and gutters were left drooping, and there were cracks and other damage throughout.
The force of the blast also sent a window frame from the Pifers’ through the roof of the adjacent house, though the glass of the window did not break.
Across the street from the Pifers, Heather and Ed Tate’s home sustained damage to its siding and their garage door won’t open. Their front yard was covered with debris. Much of the front of the Pifers’ house, including one entire wall — frame, siding and all — came to rest among small trees and evergreens in their front yard.
Heather Tate, who was home with her two children, ages 3 and 7, on Saturday morning, didn’t know what to think when she heard the violent blast that she likened to a sonic boom.
“The earth moved,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine what it was.”
When she realized what had happened, she grabbed the kids and got out of the house.
“I knew the gas was still live. I thought there might be another explosion,” she said.
Their family had one of the closest relationships in the neighborhood with the Pifers. Their children loved them.
“They were the grandparents of the street,” Heather Tate said.
“They were wonderful neighbors,” said Ed Tate, who owns Luigi’s Ristorante in Du Bois.
Often, the Tates brought food home for the Pifers.
When their children went out to play with other kids in the neighborhood, they had permission to cut through the Pifers’ yard. Yesterday, the Tates said they were grateful none of the children were out Saturday morning.
“It was extremely tragic, but it really could have been worse,” said Heather Tate.
Ken Abrahamson, who lives with his wife, Kay, across the street from the Pifers, just discovered damage to the seams of his home’s siding yesterday afternoon.
Abrahamson had just finished a bowl of cereal Saturday morning when he looked out the back door and saw the Pifers’ house explode into a big white cloud.
“I think when I saw it, I went into shock,” Abrahamson said. “I can’t say I heard the explosion.
“I said to her, ‘The neighbors’ house just blew up.’ “
While Kay Abrahamson called 911, her husband ran across the street.
He called to the Pifers but never got a response. Mary Ann Pifer was found in the front yard under some debris. She was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Her husband, who had Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, died in the house. He was found in the basement, where the explosion is believed to have occurred.