Ronkonkoma, NY – By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher


Mark Duchnowski had been called to the Ronkonkoma home on Sioux Street Wednesday afternoon to fix the furnace. He had just reached the basement when a fireball shot toward him.

At that moment, as Jessica Cristiano opened her front door across the street, an explosion jolted her back inside. She saw a cluster of sparks sizzle across overhead power lines and could hear a man screaming in agony.

Cristiano, 36, was putting boxes of nuts for her Girl Scout troop fund-raiser onto her front porch at about 4:30 p.m. when the home across the street exploded, erupting into a blaze. She grabbed her daughter, Nicole, 11, and with the help of a neighbor hoisted the girl over a 6-foot fence in their backyard. Then Cristiano jumped over herself, bewildered and shocked.

“I thought we were being bombed,” Cristiano said yesterday. “Honestly.”

What rocked the neighborhood was a propane gas leak at the home across the street from hers, about 20 feet away. It leveled the one-story house and injured Duchnowski, 48, of Selden, and a man who lived there, Suffolk police said.

Duchnowski’s wife, Debbie, said yesterday that her husband told her from his hospital bed that he didn’t even get a chance to start working on the furnace when the blast occurred. “He put his hands up to try to protect his face,” she said. Duchnowski remained in stable condition yesterday at Stony Brook University Hospital’s burn unit, where he is expected to stay for at least two weeks to treat burns to his face and arms, his wife said.

Homeowner Carol Burke, 60, and her son, Timothy, 32, were inside at the time and managed to escape. Timothy Burke helped Duchnowski out of the house, Tilden said. Timothy Burke was treated and released for facial injuries at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown. Neither he nor his mother could be reached for comment.

Officials from Duchnowski’s employer, Benit Fuel Oil in Smithtown, did not return calls for comment. He has been in the oil burner business for 30 years, his wife said.

Detectives from Suffolk police’s arson squad were sifting through the blackened rubble yesterday, trying to determine what caused the leak. But Det. Sgt. Bruce Tilden said that question couldn’t be immediately answered because of the extensive damage. There were two stoves in the home, one in the basement and one on the main level, that were fueled by liquefied propane gas. “There was a leak somewhere in the system,” Tilden said.

He pointed to two green, 100- pound propane tanks behind the mound of debris that was once the home. “It can be any infinitesimal spark” that causes an explosion, he said.

One of the more than 50 firefighters who fought the resulting blaze for several hours was treated at the same hospital for smoke inhalation, Lakeland Fire Assistant Chief Greg Pitka said. The department was assisted by volunteers from Bohemia, Nesconset, Ronkonkoma, Central Islip, Hauppauge, Holbrook and Holtsville.

Investigators estimate the damage to be at least $250,000 for the house and its contents. There is no evidence of criminality in the explosion, “Absolutely none,” Tilden said. “This is an accidental situation.”

“There really isn’t a lot to be salvaged,” Tilden said, standing near the remains of stone steps leading to what used to be a porch. “Everything these people had is gone.”