Rancho Cordova, CA – Wilbert “Bill” Paana was a devoted family man to the four generations who came together at his Rancho Cordova home for birthdays, backyard barbecues and holidays.

His favorite celebration was Christmas Eve. Relatives and friends gathered to eat, share stories and argue over classic vs. current rock ‘n’ roll. They watched the proud family patriarch tease and shower his grandchildren and great-grandchildren with gifts.

“On Christmas, everybody would go to the in-laws,” said his daughter Karin Paana-Hicks. “Christmas Eve was always the family at his place.”

In recent years, the extended family rotated hosting duties. Last month, Paana was waiting with another daughter, Kimberly Dickson, and granddaughter, Sunny Dickson, to drive to a relative’s house in Galt on Christmas Eve when a natural gas explosion ripped through his Paiute Way home.

Injuries from the blast killed the 72-year-old man and left his daughter and granddaughter with third-degree burns. The force also obliterated the three-bedroom, two-bath dwelling where he lived alone after rearing his children as a single father while training fighter pilots at Mather Air Force Base.

Federal investigators have determined the explosion was caused by an underground pipe leak. Neighbors said they reported a strong smell of natural gas in the area to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. hours before the blast.

Paana’s relatives, who have hired an attorney, were reluctant to discuss details about the tragedy in an interview Tuesday.

Paana-Hicks said they are still in shock and grieving for her father while keeping vigil for her sister at UC Davis Medical Center and her niece at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California.

“It could have been the whole family,” Paana-Hicks said. “That’s what’s so scary. It was Christmas Eve. We could have all been there.”

Family and home were core values for Wilbert William Paana, an only child whose parents died within months of each other when he was 4 years old.

Born in 1936 in Ontonagon, Mich., he was reared by his grandparents and joined the Air Force at age 18. He spent 20 years as an aircraft crew chief and specialist in flight simulation at bases in Japan and the United States.

He married Teri Vanderford in 1961, transferred to Mather and had four children before the marriage ended in divorce. He left the Air Force in 1974 and built and maintained flight simulators for AAI Corp. He retired in the early 1990s.

Mr. Paana was a warm, down-to-earth man who enjoyed simple pleasures. He met with friends every morning at a local coffee shop, cheered NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt and rarely missed a Green Bay Packers game on TV. He enjoyed blues and country music, loved classic cars and always owned Corvettes.

“He could take the engine apart and put it back together by himself,” said his granddaughter Robin Heath. “He loved Corvettes.”

A heart bypass operation several years ago gave him new energy. He spent time fixing up his house and was planning to sell before the real estate market crashed.

“He was painting it inside and out,” Paana-Hicks said. “We had just finished the ceilings.”