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Homeowners were having issues with hot water tank before deadly Plum blast

Emergency lights of a police vehicle
Matt Rourke
Emergency lights of a police vehicle

The owners of a home that exploded in western Pennsylvania last weekend were having issues with their hot water tank, authorities said, but the cause of the blast that killed five people — including two municipal officials — remains under investigation.

The explosion in Plum destroyed three structures and damaged at least a dozen others. It occurred shortly before 10:30 a.m. Saturday at a home owned by Heather Oravitz, the town's community development director, and her husband. The town is about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Plum Mayor Harry Schlegel said Oravitz, 51, and Plum Borough Manager Michael Thomas, 57, were killed in the blast, along with three others who lived in the neighborhood: Kevin Sebunia, 55; Casey Clontz, 38; and Clontz's 12-year-old son, Keegan.

Oravitz’s husband, Paul, suffered severe burns over most of his body and remained hospitalized Tuesday in critical condition, Schlegel said. Two others injured in the blast were treated at a hospital and released.

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Emergency responders said people were trapped under debris when they arrived at the scene. County spokesperson Amie Downs said the blast leveled one house and ignited two others. Fifty-seven firefighters were treated at the scene for minor issues, an Allegheny County official said.

The cause of the explosion is under investigation by the Allegheny County fire marshal's office, along with local law enforcement, with officials warning that the process would be careful and would take time.

The fire marshal's office said in a statement Monday that it was aware of the reported hot water tank issues. The agency planned to investigate the cause of the blast, with the hot water tank issue in mind, and “along with any and all other possibilities,” the statement said.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the development is on abandoned mine land surrounded by shallow, still-producing or abandoned oil and gas wells. Two producing gas wells are within about 1000 feet of the home that exploded and a pipeline runs behind the development, but none of those structures has been identified as having been involved in the blast, the newspaper reported.

Michael Huwar, president of Peoples Gas, said official checks by the company indicated that “our system was operating as designed.”

The state Public Utility Commission said Tuesday that it has been monitoring integrity tests of nearby lines by the utility and interviewing utility employees, first responders and residents as well as coordinating the collection of evidence at the scene “including natural gas service lines and meters.”

A county spokesperson said Tuesday that electrical service was restored by Sunday afternoon to all homes other than the three that were destroyed, and gas service had been restored to all homes except the loop where the blast occurred and two spur roads.

Updated: August 15, 2023 at 6:29 PM EDT
Updates with gas service restoration status.
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