Ross, PA- By Amy Schaarsmith and Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Ross man was seriously injured yesterday in a natural gas explosion that leveled his home after he apparently returned to the house and flipped on a light switch despite a standing evacuation order.

John Rapavi, 49, of 336 Jacks Run Road, was at Mercy Hospital’s burn unit in serious condition last night.

Ross police said Rapavi was thrown from his house.

“When you look at the house, and the extent of the explosion and devastation, it’s hard to believe someone survived, but he did,” said Detective William Barrett.

No further information was available yesterday about the extent of Rapavi’s burns or other injuries.

No one else was home at the time, police said.

Yesterday, all that remained of Rapavi’s wooden, A-frame house was a heap of charred and smoking timbers, some remnants of furniture, part of the front porch and a stub of brick chimney. Part of a wall lay on the ground about 25 yards from the house, hurled across the lawn by the force of the blast.

Neighbor Debbie McGuire, 36, said the explosion was so strong that her garage door was sucked open and slammed shut again.

“The whole house shook,” said McGuire, who lives nearby on Bell Park Drive.

The explosion, while apparently sparked by Rapavi, was indirectly caused by nearly 4 inches of rain in recent days that washed mud and a tree down onto a 16-inch natural gas main line, rupturing the steel pipe, according to Equitable Gas spokesman Dave Spigelmyer. There is no evidence the pipe’s installation in March 2002 is connected to yesterday’s explosion, he said.

Equitable workers, however, have been watching the steep, densely wooded hillside closely since worried neighbors began calling the company about three weeks ago to tell officials about signs of slippage, Spigelmyer said.

Yesterday morning, the embankment finally gave way.

“The hillside basically caved in and caused the failure of the pipeline,” Spigelmyer said.

One neighbor called Equitable Gas about the resulting gas odor at 8:23 a.m. yesterday, followed by another call at 8:35 a.m. Gas workers arrived at about 9 a.m. to find pressurized gas hissing up from the ground strongly enough to send dirt flying. They closed the north and south ends of the pipeline, shutting off gas to more than 50 customers.

Meanwhile, police and fire officials evacuated about 25 homes — including Rapavi’s — and cordoned off the evacuated area at about 9 a.m., Spigelmyer said. The area remained closed to residents until about 6 p.m.

Barrett said Equitable workers told fire and police officials after the evacuation — but before the explosion — that the situation was under control and they could leave.

Spigelmyer could not confirm that claim, but said Equitable officials “absolutely did not” tell residents they could return to their homes yesterday morning. Police and fire officials said they did not tell residents they could return, either.

Rapavi told police that he went back into his house and flipped on a light switch, triggering the explosion at about 9:47 a.m.

Will and Karen Drosendahl and their daughter, Alicia, were eating breakfast when they heard a deep boom just down the street. He went outside and although he could not get near Rapavi’s house, he saw flames and thick, black, billowing smoke through the trees.

Will Drosendahl said the sound alone made it clear something terrible had happened.

“If your 200-year-old stone farmhouse shakes, you know nothing good has happened.”