Stamford, CT – STAMFORD — Giuseppe “Joe” Cardillo said a bird saved his life just before his 6,000 square-foot Webbs Hill home was blown to smithereens in September.
In his first interview since the explosion, Cardillo, 55, said on the morning of Sept. 17 he was mowing his lawn with a small tractor before driving to a deli on Long Ridge Road for a sandwich.
Ordinarily, he would have lunch in his basement office, but early that Tuesday he decided to eat outside his backyard pool house.
After eating the sandwich just before 1:54 p.m., he lit a cigarette, and moments later a cardinal flew about a foot over his head and landed somewhere on the other side of a nearby bush.
With the cigarette still in hand, he got up to get a better look at the bird and walked about 20 feet when he heard a tremendous boom. The next thing he remembers is seeing firemen on his property with smoldering pieces of his house all around him.
“Before I realized I should call 911, the fire people were already there,” said Cardillo, who said he must have been unconscious for 10 or 15 minutes and only received a scratch to his forehead.
A large part of his roof landed right where he was having his sandwich next to the pool, he said.
“I should be dead,” said Cardillo, if it wasn’t for that “beautiful red” cardinal.
Hours after the fire, police Chief Jon Fontneau said the property looked like a “scene out of hell.” Next door neighbor Charlene Heffernan told one reporter that the explosion was so powerful that at first she thought a jet had flown into her home.
Fire investigators are still trying to determine what caused the explosion.
Stamford Chief Fire Marshal Charles Spaulding said last week that city fire investigators have finished their reports on the explosion. But Turn of River Fire Chief Frank Jacobellis said the state fire marshal’s reports of the incident have not yet come in and it could be months before they arrive and the investigation is closed.
At the time, fire officials said the most likely source of the explosion could be a leaking pipe that brought propane into the home from a 500 gallon underground tank.
Fire investigators dug up and removed the tank and pipe. They also painstakingly tried to recreate the basement layout by finding all of the appliances — hot water heater, furnace and electrical boxes — and setting them up exactly as they were in the basement, in hopes of being able to determine what sparked the explosion and blaze.
Cardillo, who is divorced with no children and owns a swimming pool construction company, said he was in the basement only 20 minutes before the house blew up.
“I always eat my lunch down in the basement,” Cardillo said. “That day, for some reason, I decided to eat outside.”
Cardillo said if the explosion happed a day earlier, it could have killed many in his family. Up until the day before, Cardillo’s mother, niece and her boyfriend, as well as a nephew and his wife and their baby, had been staying with him on Webbs Hill.
“This is blessed. For sure it changed my life. Now I have become a different person, because God gave me a second chance,” said Cardillo, who still speaks with a heavy Italian accent despite having immigrated to the United States in 1985 at age 24.
Cardillo said he was told by fire officials that gas probably came into the home through a broken or cracked propane pipe that was installed 27 years earlier when the house was built and propane tank was buried in the backyard. Cardillo purchased the home seven years ago.
He said he was told that gas probably built up in the home and when something was switched on, such as the hot water heater, furnace or even a computer, that was enough to make the propane explode.
“Everyone should check and inspect those propane lines more often. Because a small amount of gas can cause such a big problem,” he said.
Cardillo, who is now renting in Stamford, said he isn’t sure he will rebuild again.
He said he visited the property about a month later, but vomited and had to leave five minutes later.
“It is beautiful property, but I don’t know if I can rebuild there. For some reason, I’m still alive and I should rebuilding, but it is hard to take,” he said.
Cardillo said he wanted to thank the firemen, policemen and everyone who helped.
“All the people I talked to, they were all like angels, they were very professional, really easy. They know how to handle stuff,” he said.