Pottstown blast probes drag on, lawyers, other investigators hired – Lack of answers frustrates area residents

Since the beginning of July, authority over the properties where the May 27 explosion of a twin home claimed the lives of five people, four of them children, has been transferred back to the property owners.

Pottstown Police Chief Michael Markovich said private investigators are engaged in going over the site as part of any insurance claims or legal actions that may follow as a result of the tragedy that took the lives of Francine White, 67; Alana Wood, 13; Jeremiah White, 12; Nehemiah White, 10, and Tristan White, 8.

Eugene White, 44, and Kristina Matuzsan, 32, were injured in the blast but survived.

Michael Budner, an attorney with the Philadelphia law firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi and Bendesky, confirmed he is representing the White family in the matter and that “experts and investigators have been hired by many different parties to investigate the explosion.”

Markovich said the borough was in contact with Budner’s firm regarding ceding control of both properties back to the owners.

Those killed and injured lived on the 453 Hale St. side of the twin structure while the other side, 455 Hale St., was vacant. That property, according to Montgomery County property records, is owned by Ryan and Amber Nagel.

“It’s private property now,” said Markovich. “If we wanted to get back onto that site, we would need a search warrant,” he said.

The investigations undertaken at the behest of the law firm are just one of several connected to the explosion — none of which are moving along with anything more than very deliberate speed.

The investigation by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission may take as long as a year to complete,

Markovich cleared up some recent confusion about that law enforcement investigation by outlining the different agencies and jurisdictions involved. The police department, he said, is the lead agency in the investigation because it has jurisdiction.

However, not surprisingly, the Pottstown Police Department has no staff with any kind of expertise in large explosions. That is why Pottstown Fire Chief Frank Hand, who is also the borough’s director of emergency management, requested help from the arson and explosion team of the Philadelphia office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Markovich said.

As a federal agency, the ATF has no jurisdiction at the scene of a local incident as no federal crime has been determined to have been committed. But as experts in the field, the bureau can provide help with the investigation when asked — which is what it is doing, meaning the bureau is currently taking the lead in that part of the investigation.

“I was pretty amazed at what those guys can tell just from looking at the blast patterns, they really know their stuff,” Markovich said of the ATF investigators who were on the scene just hours after the blast that shook half the borough and severely damaged several neighboring structures.

Progress is being made, even if it is not visible from the outside.

The fire marshal’s office of the Pennsylvania State Police has submitted its findings on the explosion to the ATF, which will incorporate that information into their efforts to determine what happened, Markovich said.

When the ATF has completed its work, it will turn the results over to the police for further action, if any.

Markovich said Detective Michael Glauner has been assigned as the department’s liaison with ATF and checks in regularly for updates. Unfortunately, Markovich said, any results of that investigation are still “months away.”

That timeline has left residents frustrated.

“They want to know what is going on with it,” Jefferson Street resident Eunice Rome, 69, said of her community. “Everybody wants to know.”

Johnny Corson, the president of the Pottstown chapter of the NAACP who lives within sight of the blast and was on the scene that night, said an update from investigators would let “people know it is being addressed.”

“I understand why people are upset. I get it. It’s frustrating to have to wait so long for answers, especially with the daily reminder staring us in the face every day, but we have to let the experts do their job to really know what happened, and that will take time,” Markovich said.

By way of example, it’s worth remembering that the investigation into a deadly 2013 explosion in Allentown dragged on for 16 months before determining the cause had been a gas leak from a deteriorating 83-year-old cast iron natural gas line.

MediaNews Group writer Ford Turner contributed to this article.

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