By Cleve Bryan, Matt Rivers and Todd Quinones
EWING TOWNSHIP, N.J. (CBS) — A female resident of a town home development was killed and seven utility workers were injured after a powerful explosion and fire in Ewing Township, Mercer County Tuesday afternoon.
The explosion occurred just off I-95 at 28 Crockett Lane in the South Fork Housing Community around 1 p.m. Tuesday (See Previous Story).
Lt. Ron Lunetta of the Ewing Township Police Department says the female victim has been identified as 62-year-old Linda Cerritelli.
An autopsy was performed Wednesday and Lunetta said Cerritelli was identified by dental records.
Eyewitness News reporter Cleve Bryan spoke to the victim’s sister-in-law earlier Wednesday. She says she is absolutely broke up and her family is devastated. Officials say Cerritelli’s son is flying into the area to take care of affairs.
Cerritelli’s employer released a statement to CBS 3 on Wednesday:
“Linda Cerritelli was a valued colleague and our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends during this incredibly difficult time. We are taking steps to support Linda’s family, employees who worked with her, and our neighbors in the Ewing community who are in need of assistance,” said Michael Yang, President, Immunology, Janssen Biotech, Inc., Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.
“It’s a tremendous loss because she woke up yesterday morning just like I did thinking she was just going to go about her business,” neighbor Linda Coles-Kauffman said.
Investigators returned to the scene Wednesday morning and officials with OSHA were also at the scene.
PHOTOS: Ewing Township Explosion
More than 24 hours after a deadly blast investigators are still trying to get to the bottom of what happened.
“We don’t know exactly what caused the accident or exact timelines of events,” Mike Gaffney, PSEG Director of Gas Distribution said.
PSE&G says repair work being done around the gas line was being done with appropriate drilling equipment and in a clearly marked location.
According to authorities, the sub contractor doing the work Tuesday afternoon was Henkels and McCoy based out of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.
Eyewitness News has learned in the past 10 years the company has been cited for 10 violations in connection with accidents.
Officials say despite the deadly outcome of Tuesday’s work, the contractor which damaged the line has their confidence.
“Henkels and McCoy has had a long successful history of supporting PSE&G construction work and their OSHA rates have been historically acceptable,” Gaffney said.
It’s now becoming a critical question if proper protocol was followed so that emergency managers had notification in time to do an evacuation that might have saved the life that was lost.
“They are to call 911 first and then they are to call us,” Gaffney said.
(Reporter:) “Was there a phone call made to 911 prior to the explosion by either the gas company or the contractor to your knowledge?”
“I do not know that,” Gaffney said.
Township officials say they still have not gone through the 911 tapes to find out if there was any notification that could have allowed for an evacuation in time.
According to officials, seven PSE&G workers were injured in the blast. Four workers were treated and released from the hospital Tuesday, while the other three were held overnight, two for observation. All are in stable condition.
Dr. Louis D’Amelio of Capital Health says, “From the devastation we saw at the scene, I was expecting much more.”
Fifty-five homes were damaged and officials said 20 of those units are unfit to live in. On Wednesday, some residents returned to grab belongings and assess the damage.
As Eyewitness News reporter Matt Rivers reports, residents have been allowed back in for just a few minutes to gather their belongings. But many he spoke to are grateful that their family members are accounted for including their pets.
Wednesday began the clean-up mission in Ewing Township, with some people allowed to return home for a few minutes walking around police lines and emergency crews to pack a quick suitcase and take off.
“I feel real grateful that our house wasn’t damaged but at the same time, it’s an inconvenience, but it is what it is,” William Burnett said.
But for some, the inconvenience of being displaced was made easier by the fact that their loved ones were OK.
“Could’ve been my kids, thank God they were in school and thank God it was yesterday and not Saturday,” Joel Leibowitz said.
That relief eluded Rich Kucab for a while Tuesday. His dog Jackie was inside his house inside the blast zone, and he had no idea if she was OK.
“I was freaking out, emotions were running wild, you know she’s a part of the family,” Rich Kucab said.
Thankfully she was, now at the West Trenton Animal Hospital where she’ll stay over another day.
“My experience has been that when something tragic happens people look at their pets as part of their families,” Dr. John Kazmierczak said.
But no matter who makes up the family, thankfully most people affected are OK, the one fatality here a reminder how bad this could have been.
“It was beyond twilight zone, it blew my mind that anything like that could happen,” Kubac said.
The West Trenton Animal Hospital says it will board animals for free if their owners are displaced from their homes. As for when people will be allowed back inside it could be some time.
As Eyewitness News reporter Todd Quinones reports, at a meeting between residents and the mayor Wednesday night, many had questions about who will pay for repairs.
Will it be the homeowners association, their own insurance and should the sub-contractor have to pay as well.
“In gaps of coverage I would like to see them step in, and assume that responsibility,” neighbor Nelson Meneses said.
It will take at least a year to rebuild the units and residents who called those places home will have to find somewhere else to live in the time being.
The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office is leading the investigation, working with Ewing Township Police and the state fire marshal’s office.
Wednesday afternoon, PSE&G released the following statement:
“What happened yesterday in Ewing Township was an incredible tragedy. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the woman who lost her life and to the families who have been displaced from their homes. We are grateful that the injuries of the seven PSE&G employees affected were not life threatening but we regret that they suffered pain and discomfort.We are committed to fully cooperating with the investigation being overseen by the Ewing Police Department to determine what caused this explosion. That investigation began yesterday and is ongoing. We know that our contractor, Henkels & McCoy, will also fully cooperate.
We don’t know yet what caused this accident and we only want to share information that is accurate. The safety of our employees and customers is always our primary goal. We went door to door last night to assure residents that their homes were safe and we will continue that outreach effort as we work to restore power in the neighboring homes that were affected. Until the investigations are complete, we won’t be commenting further. But we know that everyone is committed to working quickly to determine the cause and how to protect against incidents like this in the future. We are in discussions with the Mayor on how we can help the community during this difficult time.”
Mayor of Ewing Township Bert Steinmann says an emergency fund has been established for the victims. For more information, call (609) 538-7587.
The American Red Cross says donations are pouring in. PSE&G says they will give a $100,000 to the victims’ fund.