WILSON, N.Y. (WIVB) – Western New Yorkers were stunned and devastated by last summer’s fatal house explosion in the Niagara County Town of Wilson.
The Johnsons, a family of eight, lost almost all of their possession and 14-year-old Sarah Johnson was killed. Now, through a Freedom of Information request, News 4 has obtained hundreds of police documents, a thousand photographs, and audio tapes of interviews that paint a clearer picture of what wrong at what seemed like any other suburban home on Chestnut Road.
The aerial police photographs show the impact of the blast that leveled the home. As these photos were being taken that July morning, Judy and Jody Johnson were lying in hospital beds at ECMC telling police what they remember. They told police:
Eighteen hours before the blast, 16-year-old Hannah Johnson smelled gas and immediately called her father at work. He instructed her to shut off the large NOCO propane gas supply tank behind the house and open some windows. Then later, 13 hours before the blast, the mother, Judy Johnson came home and says she could smell gas. She double-checked that the tank was off and then called NOCO.
In the call to the NOCO dispatcher, Judy said, “I don’t know if we have a leak or it’s possible. It looks like it was at 10 percent or less. I don’t know if it would smell it was empty. Is that true?”
“Why don’t I get a message to our on-call propane guy and have him give you a call, because I don’t know for sure,” the NOCO dispatcher responded.
The dispatcher then placed a call to a gas technician, saying, “We got a call from a Judy Johnson. She’s concerned she might have a propane leak. She smells fumes in the house. They did shut off the propane. She said she’s not really sure because it’s below 10 percent and she heard that if it’s about to go empty that you could smell it in the house, but she doesn’t know.”
The technician replied, “There’s a very good chance.”
The technician then called Judy directly, and although there is no recording of that conversation, this is what Judy told police about her conversation with a NOCO technician:
“He told me…I asked if they did come out. He said if you wanted us to come out he could but it was very expensive like $50 or $60 an hour or something, but if we wanted him to come out he would do that…but then I talked to my husband after that and he said no he didn’t want them to come out,” Judy said.
A couple more hours go by and 11 hours before the blast the father, Jody Johnson, arrives home from work. He tells police that he went behind the house and turned on the NOCO supply tank briefly and noticed a leak from the regulator near the tank.
“And I could hear it, whirring coming out and I smelled it, so I had another furnace that I use in the garage, so I took the regulator off that and used that one on a 100-pound tank,” Jody said.
Jody is a pipefitter by trade and had his own 100-pound tank so he hooked it up to the line, and says he used a spray bottle to check the whole outside line for leaks. He no longer heard the whirring sound near the tank, but says he never checked the inside gas lines for leaks, thinking an outside leak was the issue.
“Even before I monkeyed with it, it got into the house…I’m not sure how,” Jody said.
That night, thinking he had fixed the leak, Jody turned on the valve to his 100-pound tank. Nine hours before the blast, three family members took showers, and the tankless hot water heater in the basement never touched off an explosion. But the next morning, investigators believe that water heater did ignite the propane gas, from wherever it was leaking.
Just after 6 a.m., Judy was the first one up and headed for the bathroom.
“I don’t know even know if I turned on the sink. I walked over to the sink, I was going to wash my hands. I was going to get all my running stuff and go for a run but everything was a blur after that…I got up walked over to the sink and then boom…and I didn’t remember much after that,” Judy recalled.
“I do remember falling…just like stuff all around me and falling…and then trying to crawl out from that,” she remembered.
Jody was still in bed.
“I just heard like this huge muffled explosion…and then I remember hitting the ground, still in the bed and covers coming down on me with lumber and I tried to get out and couldn’t move the lumber and I tried to get out and couldn’t move the lumber,” Jody recounted. “I called for my wife and she didn’t call back…So I shimmied out. I don’t know how I got out. I slid from underneath the lumber. I was outside. There was no more roof.”
He continued, “I seen (sic) the rubble like a hill and my dog was standing on it, and he was in a kennel and later on I was wondering how he got out of his kennel.”
Then he saw his 18-year-old daughter Katie crying in the basement.
“And I told her to stand up so I could get ahold of her. She wouldn’t stand up and I yelled at her again and she finally stood up but she was crying and I couldn’t pick her up either way,” Jody said.
A neighbor came to pull Katie to safety, but 14-year-old Sarah didn’t survive. Her body was found nearly three hours later in the basement.
The rest of the family has recovered, and has been able to settle into a new home with the help of a huge outpouring from WNYers who wanted to do whatever they could for this family.
Even though we may never know exactly what caused the propane gas leak, there is so much we can learn from this. News 4 will continue this story on Friday, when we speak to an expert from the gas industry and a fire official about what anyone who smells gas in their home should do.